Sunday, May 28, 2006

Talk swirls of Great Lakes offshore windmills

Tilting at turbines: Talk swirls of Great Lakes offshore windmills TODD RICHMOND

ALGOMA, Wis. (AP) - Little red lighthouse. Beach boardwalks. The blue-green waters of Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon. Just another pretty-as-a-postcard day on the shores of this sleepy town of 5,700 about a half-hour east of Green Bay.

But changes could be in store for Algoma and other towns and cities that line the Great Lakes. Energy experts are set to meet in Madison and Toledo, Ohio, next month to talk about the prospects of implanting giant electricity-generating windmills in the Great Lakes.

Advocates say offshore wind turbines would be a power generation jackpot. Opponents are cringing, fearing the windmills' impact on the lakes' aesthetics, tourism and fishing.

"I'll fight this every way I can," said Algoma alderman Ken Taylor, chairman of the city's marina committee. "The beautiful view we have would be destroyed ... how many (tourists and fishermen) are going to come here if we have these things off our coastline?"

Offshore turbines would be a risky undertaking for any utility. To generate a sizable amount of power, a company would have to install rows of them, either anchoring them to the lakes' bottom in relatively shallow water or allowing them to float. Pricetags could stretch into the tens of millions of dollars.

The turbines would be huge, towering as high as 120 metres with blade spans wider than a football field, said Walt Musial, senior engineer and offshore programs leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy contractor. Musial is scheduled to make a presentation at a June 14 conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The payoff would come in increased energy production, Musial said. Winds over water are generally stronger, less turbulent and more consistent than on land. Major population and industrial centres such as Cleveland, Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Milwaukee sit on the Great Lakes' shores, reducing the need for long-distance transmission and providing an energy boost at the same time, he added.

"Offshore machines can make about twice as much as onshore," Musial said. "It's a potentially big resource for renewable energy. You want to generate the electricity close to where people are going to use it."

The concept isn't new. Several European countries, including Denmark and Great Britain, have developed wind farms in the North and Baltic seas, said John Dunlop, senior outreach representative with the American Wind Energy Association.

Houston-based Superior Renewable Energy plans to build a 170-turbine farm in the Gulf of Mexico about 16 kilometres off Padre Island. Another 50 turbines are planned off Galveston, Texas, and at least two other offshore projects have been proposed on the East Coast - one off Long Island and another off Cape Cod.

But the idea has been slow to catch on in the Great Lakes region.

Green Energy Ohio last fall built a wind-monitoring tower about five kilometres off Cleveland's Lake Erie shoreline to test the lake's potential for offshore turbines. But the state is looking toward land-based turbines, said Merle Madrid, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development.

"Offshore siting, particularly in fresh water environments, contains too many technical unknowns at this time, though we continue to be engaged in the research," Madrid said.

Officials with both the Michigan and Wisconsin public service commissions say they haven't seen any proposals for offshore wind in the Great Lakes.

Still, a 2004 report commissioned by the Wisconsin Focus on Energy Program, a partnership between the state and utilities to promote renewable sources, to study Lake Michigan wind speeds and shallows found the southern coastline holds great promise.

Seventh Generation Energy Systems, a nonprofit engineering firm, built a $114,500-US tower three kilometres off Racine's Lake Michigan shoreline last August to monitor wind speeds for three years. The state chipped in $49,000 US for the project.

Seventh Generation executive director David Blecker said the firm has no interest in building offshore turbines, but would-be developers could use the wind-speed data.

"The Europeans have shown again and again it can make sense," Blecker said.

Anyone who attempts an offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes would face formidable hurdles. Aside from the cost of construction - the Padre Island project is expected to ring in at $1 billion to $2 billion US - developers also would have to navigate a web of federal and state permits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over structures in the lakes, said Steven Metivier, a corps biologist in Buffalo, N.Y. Developers also would have to lease tracts of lake bottom from the states, which hold the underwater property rights, Metivier said. Plus, state utility regulators would have to sign off.