Like a silver needle rising 165 feet above Lake Erie s surface, a newly completed offshore wind tower near downtown Cleveland has the potential of making the Great Lakes region a bigger player in the renewable energy market.
The 6,000-pound tower, by far the region s tallest in the open water, was anchored in two phases this summer to the city s water intake crib three miles north of Cleveland s shoreline. It consists of some 125 feet of steel with movable parts atop the intake crib, which itself sticks 40 feet above the water.
Over the next two years, the imposing tower and a satellite weather station at the bottom of it will collect data on wind direction and velocity, as well as atmospheric conditions.
Green Energy Ohio, a nonprofit group behind the venture, expects it to produce the kind of results necessary to take the next step: gauging the public s interest in putting utility-scale wind turbines out in the lake.
Wind power is one of the fastest-growing forms of energy worldwide.
Europe which for decades has overshadowed the United States in terms of land-based windmills is on an ambitious campaign to install hundreds of wind-harnessing turbines at offshore locales from the United Kingdom to Germany.
But even with all of the apparent momentum under way for the renewable energy market, don t expect to see the Lake Erie shoreline cluttered by the sight of wind turbines anytime soon especially along the ecologically fragile western end of the lake between Toledo and Sandusky.
The Ohio Department of Development has been generally supportive, because of the potential for cleaner energy production and job growth in those sectors.
But the idea of putting wind turbines offshore is a politically delicate subject, even more so than it is trying to find the right land.
Many of the same issues that affect land-based turbines potentially large kills of birds and bats, if proper siting is not done get carried over to the discussion of offshore turbines.
Thrown into this region s mix are questions about how well the massive devices can withstand the impact of anything from ice floes to lake freighters. And what, if any, impact the devices could have on the region s valuable freshwater fishing industry.
Environmentalists have mixed feelings, even though they generally urge less reliance on polluting coal-fired power plants and the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the record, say they aren t anti-wind. But spokesmen for both agencies made it clear in interviews last week that they have a number of ecological issues that would have to be addressed before they would be willing to sign off on the construction of offshore wind turbines in Lake Erie.
While we re [generally] supportive, we still want to express our concerns about the appropriate placement of wind turbines in Ohio, Michele Hoffer, Ohio DNR deputy director, said.
One of the Ohio DNR s top bird biologists, Mark Shieldcastle, head of the state s Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station in Ottawa County, said western Lake Erie is so important as a flyover zone that he can t even conceive of wind turbines in this end of the lake.
The Ottawa County marshes in particular are important to wading birds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors, including the state s largest cluster of bald eagles.
This may be the biggest concentration of birds in North America in terms of migration, Mr. Shieldcastle said.
He said the Ohio DNR recommends no wind turbines within three miles of the Lake Erie shoreline. It s just amazing the rumors going around about who would like a wind turbine between here and Conneaut, Mr. Shieldcastle said. It s really not practical anywhere along the shoreline.
The experimental four-turbine wind farm west of Bowling Green, which has generated results that have surpassed expectations, is about 30 miles from the shoreline.
Aaron Godwin, GreenEnergy Ohio project manager, said the Cleveland water intake crib is being used only to collect wind data and is not eyed as a site for turbines.
He said the group hasn t determined exactly how far out it would have to go to get optimum wind, but said it expects the distance to be at least five to seven miles.
Too close in, and you re not fully reaping the benefits of going offshore. Too far out, and the costs climb, bringing the law of diminishing returns into play.
This in no way, shape, or form is a mandate, Mr. Godwin said of the Cleveland tower. It s a way of getting information in the hands of the public.
Ongoing results are to be posted on the group s Web site, www.greenenergyohio.org.
Mr. Godwin agreed that the wildlife issue will probably eliminate the western basin from consideration.
There s just no way you can get around that, he said.
Proposals for offshore wind projects in Massachusetts and New York have received mixed responses.
Right now, we re at the very, very early stages of looking at offshore wind in the United States, Megan Seymour, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in suburban Columbus.
She said the Great Lakes are different from oceanic water because the water here, especially in shallow Lake Erie, is prone to freezing.
I kind of think the Great Lakes are in a wait-and-see mode, seeing how Atlantic coast projects go first, Ms. Seymour said.
She said the effect of noises and vibrations would have to first be studied in creatures as small as mayflies, those tiny winged insects that burrow beneath Lake Erie sediment.
Officials also would have to find a better way to gauge the degree of avian mortality offshore. Most of the birds and bats that strike turbine blades would fall into the water without being detected. That [issue] will have to be overcome in some fashion, she said.
Despite concerns, Green Energy Ohio remains optimistic about the potential for wind and solar in this region.
But it expects turbines on land sooner than in the water, in part because the land-based ones are about half as expensive. Plus, there are other land-based wind towers, such as the one that went up in Bryan this summer, that could build on the momentum generated by the Bowling Green project.
The Cleveland tower was built at a relatively affordable cost of $87,000, in large part because a deal was worked out to use the intake crib as its base.
Bill Spratley, Green Energy Ohio executive director, cited a recent study that suggested 40 percent of the wind on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to be conditionally viable for wind energy development.
Mr. Spratley said Ohio and Wisconsin share an interest in researching the potential in their respective states for offshore wind power. But he too said Green Energy Ohio is not at the point of pushing it for Lake Erie.
It s definitely worth looking at, Mr. Godwin said. But the moral of the story is that there are a lot of questions left to be answered.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.