Winds of Change: Promising Research into Offshore Wind Energy Now Faces Strong Headwinds

Not far from the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, in the middle of Lake Michigan, a small bright yellow buoy lies anchored. It’s only about 200 square feet in size but it has an entire regional industry riding on it: offshore wind-powered electricity.

A number of states are beginning to generate electricity from “wind farms” that are located where the wind is most consistently blowing -“ on land -“ in their state. Across the country more than 2 percent of our electrical needs is coming from those huge industrial turbines that are clustered on those farms. In one state, Iowa, a significant 15 percent of their electricity comes from wind.

A potential source of even more consistent wind, however, is offshore the oceanic and Gulf coasts and the Great Lakes. The problem lies in getting generating projects off the ground, as it were.

Challenges include financing, of course, but also aesthetics. People buy homes on the shores of huge bodies of water primarily for the view. They don’t want that view obstructed by colonies of wind turbines standing as much as 175 meters (that’s nearly 600 feet to most of us) above the water’s surface.

That’s where the little yellow buoy comes in.

Arn Boezaart, director of Grand Valley State University’s alternative energy project.

Its story begins in 2009 when Michigan’s Grand Valley State University received a federal grant of $1.4 million “for the study of offshore wind development,” says Arn Boezaart, director of the project. That was a little too vague for Boezaart so he checked with his counterparts to see if they were working in the same direction. Sure enough, a report had been prepared in Wisconsin that year that concluded “in order to really move the question of the viability of offshore wind energy development in the Great Lakes forward someone really needs to go out into the lake at a precise location at the height of commercial wind turbines and gather real-time data,” he says.

The problem there, Boezaart continues, “was that do that, with the technology available at the time, you would take a tower -“ a wind mast they’re called -“ with conventional anemometers on top, you go find a place, stick the mast in the bedrock and you measure wind for a long period of time. Except that it’s not very viable from a financial standpoint, or a regulatory one and not politically very popular.”

A marriage of technology
Boezaart kept looking for a solution and found “an emerging technology called laser-pulse that uses laser beams as an alternative to the little plastic cups that spin around in anemometers. Simultaneously, there was an awakening of interest in the middle of Lake Michigan where there’s a place called the mid-lake plateau. It’s relatively shallow -“ 150 feet deep as opposed to the surrounding areas where it’s 300-400 feet deep. The scientific community was beginning to look at it as a place where you could consider developing commercial wind power production.” By then, Boezaart explains, that water depth was not as great an issue as originally thought. Instead of being permanently anchored, the turbines could be mounted on flotation platforms -“ and deeper water is actually more desirable. The 150-foot depth was still acceptable.

The offshore wind measurement buoy being set up in the middle of a very calm Lake Michigan.

“A company called AXYS Technologies in Vancouver, BC, had married their very robust buoy research platform with technology developed by a Virginia company called Catch the Wind,” Boezaart continues. The result was the little yellow buoy -“ one of only two in this hemisphere -“ that is now anchored 35 miles from shore.

“It collects over a hundred different data elements every second,” Boezaart says. Those range from wind speed to wave height to temperature and humidity and even some information on wildlife. “The data are stored in the onboard computer on removable memory cards. When we did our initial sea trials last winter we were only four miles offshore so we could get transmissions direct from the buoy via cell phone every ten minutes. Now that we’re 35 miles out it’s much more expensive because there’s no cell phone coverage out there and we have to use a satellite link. We’re down to one data bundle an hour, and those include only about 15 of the data elements.”

What happens to the rest? “We’ll be making monthly trips out there and we’ll physically retrieve the memory cards and bring them to shore.”

“The laser pulse technology shoots three beams vertically. It looks kind of like a column. Inside the column the scientists use Doppler radar -“ you hear the weather people talk about that kind -“ and it’s the combination of laser light and the Doppler radar that allows the measurement of air particles inside the column. The beauty of it is that they are able to slice that column at six points simultaneously, so at the lowest point it’s 75 meters and at the highest point it’s 175 meters, with four other points in between.” That pretty much covers the variety of heights used by commercial wind turbine generators today.

The components of the offshore wind measurement buoy.

With wave activity on the Great Lakes sometimes resulting in peaks of 20-30 feet how does the buoy with its laser pulse technology always know which way is vertical? “The laser pulses, just like its name implies, a thousand times per second which cancels out the motion factor of the buoy which, as you can imagine, is bouncing around out there.” Boezaart says reassuringly.

“What we are doing is basically two things. Take laser technology and place it on a mobile platform in a very rough environment, and then validate that technology as a viable alternative for technology [anemometers] that is over a century old.”

Now facing headwinds
As with the wind itself, things can change direction rapidly in the alternative energy field. Financing to enable the project that was originally intended to last for a year or more has been cut essentially in half. The initial federal grant of $1.4 million was sufficient to get it off the ground and in the water for only eight months. In the intervening years the state’s administration changed and an allocation that was to match the federal money fell victim to budget cuts. Despite a growing manufacturing niche that is providing turbine parts and service to land-based wind turbines (see Corp! article), basic offshore commercial wind research that could lead to additional alternative energy sources and the accompanying jobs no longer has an assured source of funding. Additionally, even the data being gathered is being affected. The funding cuts preclude analysis of most of it.

Boezaart is still hopeful that additional financing can be found. “It’s a very promising opportunity to learn much more about the wind conditions over the Great Lakes and to do it in a way that could have economic development implications for the future.”