East Toledo in running for wind power lab

11/20/2006
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


America's first laboratory for testing offshore wind turbine blades would be built in East Toledo and begin operating along the Maumee River shoreline by mid-2009 if a contingent of northern Ohio academic, business, and government officials gets its way.

The Ohio site is one of six nationally in the running for the $11.5 million U.S. Department of Energy project, which could create dozens of spinoff jobs by attracting manufacturers and parts suppliers for the booming wind power industry.

"It's the chance to get in on the ground floor of an industry that's going to be big. It's going to be a giant," Jason Cotrell predicted.

Mr. Cotrell is a senior engineer and chief project spokesman for the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., where land-based turbine blades of 50 meters or less (164.05 feet or less) undergo weight-bearing stress tests and other experiments.

The Energy Department needs a separate facility to test much longer blades used on offshore wind turbines - 50 to 100 meters long (164.05 to 328.01 feet) - that could be installed along the Great Lakes or America's coastlines in the coming years.

Known as a wind turbine generator blade structural test facility, this lab would research the strength, flexibility, durability, and ice resistance of blades that manufacturers hope to sell on the U.S. market.

Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Maine also are vying for the coveted project. A short list or selection is expected to be made by Dec. 31. The chosen site must have the facility operating by mid-2009, Mr. Cotrell said.

America lags behind Europe in the use of wind power, in part because it has no national laboratory to certify potential offshore blades for use. Europe has seven.

Wind is America's fastest-growing form of energy production. The American Wind Energy Association and the Government Accountability Office predict it will account for 6 percent of U.S. energy by 2020, six times greater than the 1 percent market share it now commands.

Much of that power could come from offshore turbines. Though they are more expensive to put into operation, they typically are twice the size of land-based turbines and produce four times as much power, Mr. Cotrell said.

Europe has some offshore wind turbines with blades 62 meters, or 203 feet, long. That's about 6.5 feet longer than a 747 passenger jet, he said. By comparison, the three land-based turbines at the Wood County landfill, west of Bowling Green, have blades 132 feet long.

While the height of an offshore turbine would certainly be higher than the Wood County turbine towers at 257 feet, the precise height of an offshore tower varies depending on how long the blade is and where the tower must be anchored on the bottom of the body of water involved.

The Wood County turbines can produce 1.8 megawatts of power, enough electricity for about 1,560 homes. Some single offshore turbines in Europe are now producing 6 megawatts, or enough to power about 5,506 homes.

Several officials view the Great Lakes region's offshore wind as an untapped energy resource. In July, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) described Lake Erie as the "Saudi Arabia of wind" power.

On Nov. 13, the University of Toledo, the Regional Growth Partnership, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and other area officials involved in promoting the East Toledo site submitted their application for what's known as a cooperative research and development agreement. Some $9.5 million would have to be raised from nonfederal sources.

The Energy Department has thus far committed only $2 million to the proposed facility. Local costs would be recovered over 20 years from fees charged manufacturers to certify their fitness, said Robert Kozar, a former NASA administrator who was hired in early 2006 as a special projects official in UT's research office.

The fact that Europe has seven offshore blade laboratories "should be a good indication the U.S. can keep one busy. There may be enough of a need for more," he said.

Besides the principal sponsors of northwest Ohio's application mentioned above, Mr. Kozar said numerous other parties are involved in the effort to make the project a reality here. They include: Midwest Terminals of Toledo International, the Ohio Department of Development, Bowling Green State University, Case Western Reserve University, the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Cleveland State University, the University of Akron, Ohio State University, the University of Dayton, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the Cleveland Foundation, and economic development officials from several northwest Ohio counties.

A major wind-research laboratory would be a good fit for the region, given UT's research in photovoltaic solar cells and other forms of renewable energy, as well as the emergence of companies such as First Solar LLC, Mr. Kozar said.

The Toledo area is "the logical place to move forward in wind energy," he said.

The hidden prize, Mr. Kozar said, is the potential for spinoff jobs from manufacturers and suppliers who tend to flock toward major research facilities.

That is expected to be true in particular for offshore wind companies because transportation costs for the blades are enormous. Offshore wind blades are too large to transport on a highway or under bridges. Once certified, they will have to be moved by water, he said.

The port authority has identified five acres of the Midwest Terminals site along the Maumee River in East Toledo for the research laboratory.

The site has several key advantages: It has cranes in place rated strong enough to lift the blades, which may someday top out at over 25 tons. It is along the water and has close access to I-280. The interstate highway system would be used to transport blades less than 50 meters for land-based turbines.

The long-vacant Chevron property along Front Street is just south of the proposed site. That means the lab, should it be built there, would virtually be walking distance away from land that could be developed by wind power manufacturers or parts suppliers who want to locate close to the laboratory.

John Gibney, the Regional Growth Partnership's communications and marketing director, said the project could help Toledo take another step toward shedding its downtrodden "Rust Belt" image. He said it shows officials are now more eager to be "thinking outside the box" for economic development.

"The future's going to be northwest Ohio diversifying its economic portfolio. This is certainly one aspect of it," agreed Nadeane Johnson, the agency's commercialization and entrepreneurship director.

The project is supported by Environment Ohio, formerly the environmental unit of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.

"We think developing Ohio's wind energy resources is one of the best homegrown solutions we have in the state," said Amy Gomberg, the group's environmental advocate.

A national report issued two years ago ranked Ohio second only to California in terms of new job potential stimulated by the growing wind-energy sector. The findings in that report, written by the Washington-based Renewable Energy Policy Project and funded by the Energy Department, drew conclusions similar to one issued last week by Environment Ohio.

Lake Erie's western basin is especially ripe for offshore wind development because it is the shallowest part of the Great Lakes. That makes it more affordable for developers to anchor the turbine foundations. Plus, the region is close to electrical transmission lines from major power plants and major urban centers, two other major factors that favor the East Toledo location.

But the Toledo area also is where the wind-wildlife issue collides. Two of North America's biggest migratory bird flyways exist over Lake Erie.

Although a federal Government Accountability Office report in the fall of 2005 said that tall buildings themselves result in about as much avian mortality as wind turbines, wildlife advocates remain concerned over the prospect of birds and bats dying en masse by crashing into spinning blades. Such scenarios have been documented in northern California's Altamont Pass and near West Virginia mountains.

Toledo this year hosted both the Great Lakes region's first conference on offshore wind development and the region's first conference on wind-related wildlife issues.

Ms. Gomberg said most wildlife issues can be addressed through proper siting and technology. "I can say with confidence the wind developers aren't going to put up the biggest wind turbines right in the middle of two of North America's largest migratory bird flyways, because it would hurt their industry," she said.

She predicted manufacturing jobs for the Toledo area and other parts of northern Ohio, with most offshore turbines installed near Cleveland and to the east.

Mr. Kozar agreed: "Less sensitive areas would probably be developed first."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.