The Great Lakes Potential for Wind Energy Drives Industry Interest

Two Michigan universities have joined forces with a Seattle-based design company to pursue offshore wind technology. Grand Valley State University and Michigan Technological University are in a group seeking federal funding for initial engineering and design of new floating-turbine technology. The floating technology has the potential of moving turbines to the middle of the lakes.

The public-private partnership is seeking investors to cover the matching funds needed in a U.S. Department of Energy wind technology grant program.

 The Glosten PelaStar floating wind turbine platforms would allow placement of utility-scale wind farms anywhere on the Great Lakes and in water depths that would allow the turbines to be located so they cannot be seen from shore. 

Current turbine anchoring technology cannot be used in deep water, forcing the wind turbine towers to be placed within six miles of shore in areas off Muskegon. Turbine towers would have to be 22 miles out into the lake to be completely invisible from shore. 

Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center is the lead agency requesting funding from the Department of Energy in a U.S. offshore wind demonstration project. The Michigan Tech group includes GVSU’s Muskegon-based Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, along with Holland-based turbine blade manufacturer Energetx Composites and Muskegon-based Andrie Specialized, a marine transportation company. “With offshore wind, 80 percent of the problem is visibility, which is a big issue,” said Arn Boezaart, MAREC director and member of the former Michigan Offshore Wind Council. “This is technology that wants to be in deep water, not near shore.”

PelaStar is a floating wind turbine platform technology that Glosten has been developing for six years. The submerged platform tied to the lake bottom or ocean floor with permanent anchors has been “tank tested” but the West Coast company is looking in several areas of the world – including the Great Lakes -- to put up a full-scale prototype. 

The PelaStar technology is known as “tension-leg platforms.” They reported the turbine tower actually sits on a platform about 50-feet below the surface. Below surface, the platform is not moved by waves or ice. The platform is highly buoyant and is kept in place with “tendons” attaching the platform to lake or sea bottom anchors. The tension between the platform, which wants to rise, and the anchor system makes for a stable base for large turbine towers. This technology has been used in the offshore oil and gas industries but is being modified for wind turbines.

Glosten estimates that cost of the PelaStar system is up to 25 percent less than offshore foundation systems now being used in Europe. The floating system allows for deep-water deployment of the turbines in areas where wind is stronger and more constant than closer to shore. Offshore tower placements away from shore will allow the turbine to produce more power, but the drawback is the transmission cost of underwater cables and the distance work crews need to travel to maintain the devices.

The funding being sought from the federal Department of Energy is from a $200 million program for offshore demonstration projects on both ocean coasts, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Great Lakes. The first phase for engineering and design requires a 20 percent match for the available $20 million.

The second phase for actual construction needs a 50 percent match for the available $180 million. The Michigan Tech-led group estimates a total project cost of $9 million with work being done in Lake Michigan or Lake Superior.

The initial letter of intent sent to federal energy officials at the end of March must be followed up with a final proposal by May 31. We understand that federal decisions on funding should be announced in the fall.