Great wind on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes of North America offer some of the world’s best wind resources, which are only now beginning to be exploited. Harvey Wasserman reports on a number of developments that potentially mark the beginning of a new Klondike.

Spinning cheaply and cleanly in brisk Great Lakes breezes, Cleveland’s 225 kW Vestas machine is the first utility-scale wind turbine to generate electricity in the heart of an American city. Across two Great Lakes, in Toronto, a much larger machine claims the same title in Canada.

Since its debut, Cleveland’s V27 has also become the first to spin before millions of American TV football fans as it is situated downwind from the Browns’ football stadium. Sited in front of the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC), and a short walk from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, this now-famous device sits in a lakefront basin that draws more than 1.5 million visitors per year. From here, overhead views of the wind turbine find their way into the football team’s occasional national TV broadcasts. It has also become a staple backdrop for Weather Channel broadcasts and regular news reports from Cleveland, not to mention a whole new slew of candid wedding, family and class reunion photographs.

Indeed, this lakeside machine may now be the most highly visible and frequently visited wind turbine on the planet. Fittingly, it spins in the city that hosted the world’s first electricity generating windmill, a mere 120 years ago.

Meanwhile, on the shores of Lake Ontario, a 750 kW windmill has been providing power for Toronto since 2002. Sited in Canada’s largest metropolitan area, it is a workhorse that, by some estimates, puts out 1 GWh of electricity per year.

These two successful lakeside urban emplacements symbolize the gateway to a hugely promising future for offshore, freshwater wind farms.

As these wind turbines prove themselves, there are those who envision a future in which thousands of big turbines, embedded throughout the world’s largest collective body of fresh water, will use the lakes’ highly concentrated wind resources to transform the entire Great Lakes region into a vast source of clean power.

The obstacles are numerous and daunting, but the prospects are unparalleled, not only for a multi-billion-dollar bastion of sustainable investment, but also for the revival of a once-great industrial region that has fallen on hard times.

High-profile projects spreading the word

Two years ago, on 9 June, 2006, the GLSC installed what it now calls its ‘iconic’ Vestas machine in its front yard. Linda Abraham-Silver, president and executive director of the GLSC says: ‘The Science Center’s primary goal for installing a wind turbine is to create a highly visible exhibition to demonstrate wind power technology and raise public awareness about renewable energy.’ Along the way, it is also generating about 7% of the electricity the Center uses, and has opened the door for what many in Cleveland hope will be a whole new level of industrial development.

The 7 metre deep hole into which the turbine tower was sunk sits near the south shore of Lake Erie. The Rock Hall, which is downwind to the east, draws more than 80,000 visitors per month. Browns’ Stadium, upwind to the west, seats some 73,200 fans at each of up to 10 home games per season, many of whom join the several hundred thousand who visit the GLSC annually. The turbine is also visible to tens of thousands of commuters driving by on the nearby Shoreway Freeway, and to the thousands more who work in the tall buildings downtown, to the south.

To enhance the turbine’s appearance, the GLSC has established a permanent artistic display called ‘Windworks’ by the New York-based team of Ellen and Allan Wexler. Says GLSC vice president Blake Andres: ‘Cleveland Public Art came to us with an idea to enhance the landscape,’ adding that they were ‘terrific partners in conceiving, funding and installing the public art piece.’

On 11 July, 2007, the Center added a 100 metre canopy of GE photovoltaic (PV) panels to its front entrance with a capacity of 31.2 kW. Under normal conditions the array powers the 1100 bulbs in the Science Center’s exhibit halls. Called ‘SolarWorks,’ the installation was funded by the US Department of Energy, the Cleveland Foundation, and the Ohio-based Ferro Electronic Materials Systems Corporation, in partnership with GE Energy, Panzica Construction and the Doty & Miller Architectural firm.

The array is on target to produce 36-43 MWh annually. Despite the cloudy, overcast weather for which Cleveland is infamous, the project is already considered a success. ‘Our role is to engage the public in the understanding of science, technology and the environment,’ says Abraham-Silver, adding ‘It makes sense for us to visibly demonstrate that Ohio’s renewable resources, wind and even solar, can lessen the impact on other natural resources.’

Abraham-Silver also admits to a ‘Big Dream,’ in which renewable electricity from the wind turbine and solar array will be used to convert water drawn from the lake into hydrogen to power buses for ‘kids on field trips.’ The GLSC has already begun discussing the possible future of an electrolyzer with NASA and the city’s Rapid Transit Authority. There’s no firm time table for this ‘third phase’ to the Center’s renewable portfolio, but Abraham-Silver believes the likelihood of it eventually happening is strong.

Overcoming public opposition

When first proposed, the GLSC’s solar installation raised eyebrows among sceptics, but the windmill was downright controversial. However, as history would have it, this is not Cleveland’s first big electric-generating wind turbine. That honour belongs to the one opened a few miles away by Charles Brush, in 1887. A contemporary and competitor to Thomas Edison, Brush installed the revolutionary street lights that gave Cleveland the world’s first electrically-illuminated city centre. Spinning in the heights to the east, Brush’s massive and pioneering wooden-bladed turbine powered the lights and power tools in his home a century before large utility-scale turbines began proliferating across Europe and the US.

Nonetheless, the GLSC installation initially drew some searching questions from wind proponents. Many wondered why a turbine would be placed at a spot shielded from Lake Erie’s winds by a stadium and two museums, when putting it right at the lakeside might be far more productive. They also worried that ice deposits might possibly be flung from the blades toward the GLSC entrance, some 50 metres away.

Andres acknowledges the turbine is less efficient where it is than it might be on the open plains or out in the lake. But for purposes of education and image, the Center wanted the machine on its own front yard. ‘Siting possibilities down by the lake are limited by the presence of Burke Airport,’ a city-owned facility just to the east, he says, adding: ‘We did find one spot down there we might have used, but the wind wasn’t that much better, and there were similar turbulence issues.’

Andres adds that ice fling has thus far proved insignificant. ‘We watch the machine very closely, and there is an automatic shut-down mechanism that would be triggered if icing were to cause an imbalance in the blades. So we don’t anticipate a problem,’ he says.

AWS Truewind did an energy production assessment alongside a site evaluation, meteorological study and wind flow modelling.

As for avian issues, Andres says the GLSC has thus far found two dead birds and one bat near the base, but the evidence is not definitive that they were killed by twirling blades. ‘Songbirds are very skittish and are not likely to fly into the blades,’ says Andres. ‘This place swarms with sea gulls, and we don’t see them being harmed either,’ he adds. Abraham-Silver comments: ‘Our building kills a lot more birds than the windmill. They fly into the windows, not the blades.’

The V27 was being dismantled in Denmark to install a larger one on that site. It was refurbished in California by Enexco and then erected by White Construction, of Indiana.

The 26-tonne machine stands a total of about 50 metres, 20 metres taller than the Science Center, but 4 metres shorter than Browns’ Stadium. The blades are 15 metres long, with peak decibel levels ‘in the low 40s, which is similar to the levels of a quiet suburban neighborhood or an average conversation,’ says Andres.

The project was originally proposed by Leadership Cleveland and Sustainable Cleveland. Funding and other support came from the Cleveland Foundation, the Department of Energy, Parker Hannifin, the Lubrizol Corporation, Cleveland Public Art and Cleveland Public Power, the city’s municipal-owned utility.

The windmill feeds the building only and does not connect into the city grid, but Andres emphasizes that Cleveland’s municipal utility has been ‘more than helpful’ on installation, appropriate hookups and other issues.

Furthermore, the educational success of the project has been ‘very gratifying’ says Abraham-Silver, adding: ‘We get hundreds of calls from all over the world. More and more school projects proposed by students who come to the GLSC are now focused on renewables. People love this machine.’

Moving the market for economic revival

Between the era of Charles Brush’s ground-breaking first wind turbine and the one now operating at the GLSC, Cleveland’s economic fortunes have risen and fallen dramatically along with the rest of the north-east US ‘steel belt.’ As home to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and then a massive boom in heavy industry, Cleveland and the surrounding region enjoyed epic prosperity well into the 1960s. But through the Vietnam era and beyond, America’s industrial heartland has become an economically depressed ‘rust belt’ with little obvious hope for revival.

For some very influential players in northern Ohio, the GLSC turbine stands at the cutting edge of what many hope will be a massive green-powered revival. ‘We missed the last big wave,’ says Richard Stuebi, BP fellow at the Cleveland Foundation, referring to the electronic revolution of the late 20th century that was ‘associated with the high-tech sector: computers, semiconductors, software.’ With a new revolution coming in green energy, he says, ‘Ohio can’t afford to let this one pass by.’ Stuebi goes on: ‘We see the potential for wind energy in the Great Lakes as being very very big, and we want to see that manufacturing done here.’

Indeed, standardized wind maps of the Great Lakes region show one of the most concentrated potential green energy resources in the world. Ringed by substantial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland and others, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario seem potentially comparable to wind resources even as big as the American Great Plains, where the winds are steady and powerful, but where distances to markets are daunting.

However, turbines in the lakes face many of the problems confronting marine offshore wind farms, including the high costs of installation, anchoring issues and potential problems related to access for maintenance. In the Great Lakes, installations also face the challenge of ice floes banging up against the towers and damaging or even bringing them down. On the plus-side, the freshwater Great Lakes installations will avoid the plague of saltwater corrosion, which has proven challenging to marine-based arrays. Furthermore, their relative proximity to the big cities of the mid-west could keep transmission costs relatively low when compared with other regions. And, while Lakes Michigan and Superior may prove problematic because they are so deep, Lake Erie is not.

‘The shallow depths in the middle of the lake may indicate a significant advantage in siting large wind arrays,’ says Stuebi. ‘We think the Great Lakes is a great place to do offshore wind, better than the oceans. Lake Erie is ‘relatively wave free [and is] proximate to a lot of transmission corridors [and] urban load centres.’ With the ‘best wind resources east of the Dakotas’ northern Ohio could be to this burgeoning wind regime what Houston is to oil and gas, he said recently.

Rough estimates show wind potential in the lakes at ‘a couple hundred gigawatts,’ says Stuebi, who adds: ‘I’m not sure we’ll ever get it exploited to that degree. But there could someday be a string of wind turbines stretching across the lake to Canada, establishing a grid.’ Thirty or forty years from now, he says, there could be ‘tens of gigawatts’ of wind capacity being harvested for use throughout the region.

A number of Cleveland-area firms are already poised to participate in what Stuebi hopes will be a major industrial revival. Scientific and engineering centres at the nearby Case Western Reserve University, the Glenn Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a wide range of fuel cell companies, the Owens-Corning Company for supplying composite for blades, the Dyson Bolt Company in Painesville, Cleveland’s Sherwin-Williams Company for coatings, Lubrizol Lubricants in nearby Wickliffe, Timken, Rotek and Avon Bearings, and numerous foundries, mills and other local ventures are all poised to participate in the coming wind boom. ‘We want to catalyze and gel the wind supply chain here in northern Ohio,’ says Stuebi in the hope this would attract a big player to manufacture turbines, towers, blades, cranes and other major components in the region.

Indeed, because the size of the installed turbines may be limited by the ability to move them through the St Lawrence Seaway leading into the lakes, or over roads from other manufacturing centres, the vision of a massive wind harvest in the middle of Lake Erie might hinge on the ability to manufacture most of its components along the shore.

Measuring and developing the resource

As a sort of beacon, the Columbus-based non-profit Green Energy Ohio has helped place a 2.7 tonne, 55 metre wind test tower atop Cleveland’s water crib, the primary intake facility for the city’s water supply. Sited in 2005, about 5.6 km north of the Science Center, the readings show steady wind currents in the 24 km/h (6.67 m/s) range, with higher potentials all but certain further into the lake.

Other tests have been conducted around the lakeshore. Ohio has only four commercial-scale wind turbines, but they are extremely successful. Sited at Bowling Green, about 60 km southwest of downtown Cleveland, these 1.8 MW Vestas turbines were installed in 2003 and 2004, and have performed beyond expectations. The municipal-owned utility is involved in negotiations that may bring much more wind capacity to the town and the surrounding area. Nearby Bowling Green State University is also in the process of studying sites for new turbines. Overall, the Bowling Green municipally-owned turbines have shown that while northern Ohio’s onshore winds are not extraordinarily powerful, they are steady and proven for profitable commercial operations. The region is additionally attractive to turbine development because it is criss-crossed with transmission lines ready to carry wind-driven electricity to market and their ubiquitous tall towers also make it difficult to argue against the visual realities of wind farming.

A number of official studies are now underway along Ohio’s northern shore to evaluate avian and other issues. US Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) is also at work securing more funds for research and development. The Ohio shore, she says, is ‘absolutely headed into the wind. We have a massive industry to give birth to here.’

To the north-east, across Lake Erie and over to the north shore of Lake Ontario, a 750 kW machine has been operating in downtown Toronto since 2002. The turbine is owned by a partnership between the Windshare Co-op and municipal utility Toronto Hydro.

According to industry expert Paul Gipe, Canada’s only downtown turbine has been putting out about 1 GWh a year. It was built by former Dutch company Lagerwey, which has since gone out of business, making it ‘a challenge’ to get parts with ‘sheer efforts of will’ keeping the turbine going, says Gipe.

Though it is ‘not on a great wind site,’ Toronto’s turbine is not flanked by structures such as a football stadium or a Hall of Fame, enabling it to avoid some of the turbulence issues associated with the GLSC’s V27. Even so, like the one in Cleveland, Gipe says, Toronto’s windmill has been seen by huge numbers of people, and is a likely suspect in just two bird deaths.

Ironically, Cleveland’s machine may have helped rekindle a move toward lake-based wind power in Canada. Proposals for large wind farms along the Canadian shoreline had drawn strong local opposition, prompting the Ontario government to impose a moratorium on wind development. However, the moratorium was recently lifted, possibly due to the opening of the GLSC machine and clear signs that influential Ohioans like Stuebi are now pushing hard for a strong American initiative to lead the wind industry into the Great Lakes.

Indeed, as the wind industry advances, a whole new world of contentions and litigation may well arise over who will control the winds and waters of the bi-national Great Lakes. Questions of jurisdiction and distribution could well enrich entire armadas of lawyers throughout the early 21st century.

In the meantime, the first tangible steps into the lakes may be cautious ones. Though he sees immense future potential, Stuebi envisions an early project in the modest 20–40 MW range. That assessment is embraced by Paul Gipe, who says he ‘recommends a modest-sized project to prove viability in the Great Lakes. We can do studies ‘till hell freezes over, but we won’t really know impacts until we actually put some towers in the water.’

The first array, he says, should be ‘big enough so it’s a real group, and we can assess the impacts, but small enough so those impacts will be minimized.’

Gipe strongly advocates ownership arrangements that involve public stakeholding, like many in Europe. Though their forms are somewhat different, both Cleveland and Toronto have municipal utilities, as does Bowling Green. ‘Opposition to wind arrays tends to be significantly diminished when the public owns at least a share,’ says Gipe, adding: ‘It’s the best way to go.’

It is unclear exactly when the first arrays will actually be deployed in fresh water and who will own them. Despite enthusiasm on both sides of the Great Lakes, investors are likely to take a wait and see approach based on assessments of what happens with off-shore installations now in operation in Europe.

Inspired in part by the success of Bowling Green’s municipal-owned wind array, a number of area landowners are also exploring prospects for farmer-owned and community-based wind developments. Proposed in front of the Ohio Legislature by community-based energy advocate Dan Juhl, the potential for locally-owned wind installations near Lake Erie is particularly strong because of short distances to large urban markets, and relative high electric rates. For fans of the model, Cleveland’s lakeside turbine symbolizes far more wind farms to come.

Offshore turbines clearly work, and will benefit from the salt-free breezes that so regularly rake the region. But issues of bottom assessment, transmission and deployment, as well as policy and finance, may define the ultimate success or failure of the great wind harvest now envisioned for the Great Lakes.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that there is boundless enthusiasm for the vision of massive quantities of clean, renewable electricity pouring from offshore into the cities of a rust belt hoping to ride the winds into a profitable new era of green industrial prosperity. ‘God gave us the resource,’ says Kaptur. ‘We just have to capture it.’

Harvey Wasserman is a US-based writer from Ohio. His latest book, Solartopia! Our green-powered earth, is available at

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