Monday, April 21, 2008

Lake Michigan wind could power Milwaukee

As recently reported in the Daily Reporter, the Washington Post, and Jim Rowen's The Political Environment blog - the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has initiated a study "assessing the wind power generation potential of the Great Lakes."

Offshore wind farms are not the stuff of science fiction. In fact, I see them twice a year when I fly into Copenhagen, Denmark to visit my girlfriend's family. From the air they look like tiny white specks set against a giant blue canvass. From land, they look much the same. For those who dislike the idea of huge turbines obstructing their lake views, the fact that from the shore such turbines are nearly invisible might be a relief.

A group by the name of Radial Wind plans to erect 390 turbines in the water's of Lake Michigan. The group's website, freshly posted in 2008, claims that "Radial Wind Farm will be the largest supply of offshore wind energy in the world" generating 1,950 megawatts of electricity for customers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan (for context, Wisconsin's largest wind farm currently under development measures will produce 145 megawatts). The Radial Wind Farm would be located in the Mid-Lake Plateau region of Lake Michigan - a former island in the middle of Lake Michigan which lies directly east of Milwaukee at "at depths less than 90 meters and extends upward to minimum depths of 40-60 meters at three localities." Again, according to the website, the nearest turbine to Wisconsin's coast would be approximately 18 miles east of Milwaukee. That would be far enough away to be invisible to onlookers from the Milwaukee shore. It should be noted that the Radial Wind project has yet to be formally proposed or publicly vetted.

One inherent advantage to turbine siting on lakes versus on land is the fact that smooth lake surfaces fuel steady winds. A 2004 report entitled, "Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Resource Assessment," which was partially funded by Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program, found the Mid-Lake Plateau region to be an "excellent offshore wind resource" with steady 20mph winds and the energy potential of the site "in excess of 10,000 megawatts."

Tapping Lake Michigan's wind energy could be one way for the Milwaukee region to bolster its economic competitiveness. With "green" quickly replacing "silicon" as the holy-grail of economic development, such a vast well of untapped clean energy would seem to be a priceless commodity in a low-carbon future. The role that this could play in recruiting industry and business could be substantial if businesses are able to offset carbon emissions with carbon-credits from their consumption of clean energy derived from Milwaukee wind. Of course, the flip-side of this argument is that clean energy could lure "dirty" industries not unlike the 2003 decision by Alcoa to construct a $1.1 billion aluminum smelter in pristine, carbon-free, Iceland. Beyond recruitment, the construction of such a large offshore wind farm could spur job-creation in Wisconsin's nascent wind manufacturing industry (Tower Tech Systems, Magnetek, Cooper Power Systems, and American Superconductor).

The technology to erect wind turbines in the relatively deep waters of Lake Michigan's Mid-Lake Plateau has yet to arrive. However, developers seem to believe that this is both a money-making and environmentally friendly proposition. Will Wisconsin citizens and government regulators agree?
Update: Since the posting of this blog, an article covering the above story has appeared on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious about how these turbines will run. My understanding is that wind turbine must be connected to a thermal power plant in order to operate. If the grid goes down, they can't run. In the mid-west this means coal burning plants. It also means that some sort of immense electrical cable system must be set up in the lakes. There certainly has to be hidden environmental costs here. I do know that power companies like wind energy because it keeps their coal plants burning and keeps us all tied to the grid. If you look at who is on the Governor's Task Force on Global Warming you'll be surprised by the number of power companies.

Unknown said...

I find it hard to believe that we have the technology to drill for oil off the coasts but can't erect a few simple turbines...