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AXYS WindSentinel

Photo courtesy of AXYS Technologies, Inc.

The WindSentinel concluded a two-month trial on Lake Michigan in December, weathering waves of 25 feet and high winds.

Offshore wind energy right for Great Lakes? Picture becoming clearer

by Rory Keane
Jan 11, 2012

Mich Offshore Wind 80 m

Photo courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory

US windmap 80 m

Photo courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory

A map showing wind speeds above the United States. Data for wind speeds on the Great Lakes are conspiciously absent.  

Scientists in Michigan reeled in an impressive catch last month—a seven-ton floating laboratory that weathered a two-month trial on Lake Michigan to inform researchers about the potential to power wind energy installations offshore.

“Beyond the potentials of assessing offshore winds on the Great Lakes it has tremendous scientific potential,” said Guy Meadows, professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences at University of Michigan’s College of Engineering in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He pointed to the practical applications of accurate wind measurements taken on the lake’s surface, an area of relative uncertainty in meteorology that interests everyone from boaters to energy companies.

“The atmosphere over the lake is very different than atmosphere over land.There’s no good way to measure that,” Meadows added.

The buoy was anchored four miles off the shore of Muskegon, Mich. from October to December 2011, transmitting data to researchers at the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center via cell phone.

The two-month trial was part of a validation period for the buoy, also known as WindSentinel, and “things are looking pretty good so far,” according to Meadows.

The next deployment will be in March, venturing farther out into the middle of Lake Michigan to measure winds at a height of 200 meters.

The overarching hope for the research will be its application to offshore wind farming.

“The federal government has a five-year commitment to study offshore wind developments,” said Arn Boezaart, one of WindSentinel’s project managers at the center.

That commitment is bolstered by $50.5 million to fund offshore wind opportunities, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C. The pressing question for residents of the Great Lakes region, though, is whether offshore wind farming is a viable solution for their energy needs.

“In today’s dollars there’s no chance anyone wants to do offshore because it’s too cheap to do it on shore,” said Boezaart, pointing to what industry experts speculate could be a threefold to fivefold increase in costs for offshore wind installations.

However, energy groups are still interested in the findings from WindSentinel, because it gives the most unique and specific data available on Lake Michigan’s wind potential, taking measurements at one-second intervals with cutting-edge laser sensors.

“We don’t really know the wind speed conditions,” said Kevin Borgia, public policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a nonprofit based in Chicago. When considering offshore wind energy for the Great Lakes “resource assessment is a vital first step,” Borgia said.

Even if the findings from WindSentinel point to higher, more consistent wind speeds over the lake, there are concerns over the engineering challenges in harvesting that energy.

“In a first time kind of situation there’s a lot of things to be worked through that haven’t been worked through yet,” said Jen Read, executive director of the Great Lakes Observing System in Ann Arbor.

“The lake bed makeup and the depth is another key point,” said Borgia.

Even with all the lingering questions about the future of offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes, researchers like Boezaart remain optimistic.

“Will that data be used five years from now? I really think so.”