United States

United States

Great lakes project delayed as it tackles freezing water

Icebreaker, the $126 million 20.7MW project in Lake Erie, will not come online until 2022, two years later than the original commissioning date.

A coastguard vessel breaks ice on frozen Lake Erie in winter
A coastguard vessel breaks ice on frozen Lake Erie in winter

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"Everything is just taking a little longer," says Lorry Wagner, president of the owner, the public-private Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LeedCo).

"None of these agencies had ever done a project like this before." The project has to be approved by 14 federal, state and local agencies before construction can start.

Icebreaker remains likely to become one of the first offshore wind projects in the US. It only needs one more permit, from the Ohio Power Siting Board and has already sold most of its power, to Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Public Power and American Municipal Power.

Only five freshwater wind projects have so far been built anywhere in the world — all in the Nordic countries. Norway’s Fred Olsen Renewables is one of Icebreaker’s investors.

In addition, the US only has one offshore project of any sort, the 30MW Block Island project, which has been operating in the Atlantic Ocean off Rhode Island since 2016.

A freshwater site implies slightly less corrosion as there is no salt. But more notably, Icebreaker, as the name implies, will have to withstand significant forces from the "ice shove" every winter when Lake Erie freezes.

However, the "battering ram" impact on the six MHI Vestas V126-3.45 turbines will only be 70% as strong as the wind force, according to Wagner.

The turbines will be installed on suction bucket foundations, another first for the Americas.

The waves will be far less intense than, say, in the North Sea, where they can exceed 27 metres, whereas in Lake Erie the maximum is 6.7 metres. "You’re really trading one force for another," says Wagner.

Engineering challenges

LeedCo hired ice experts from Eranti Engineering, which worked on the 2.3MW Pori and 40MW Tahkoluoto wind projects in the Gulf of Bothnia off Finland, the northern arm of the Baltic Sea.

These Finnish projects experience more force from floes and sheet ice than any others worldwide, according to Walt Musial, principal engineer and manager for offshore wind at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Icebreaker will use inverted cones on the towers at the water level, as does the Finnish Tahkoluoto project, so that ice is deflected downwards and away.

LeedCo also hired Canadian ice experts that had worked on the Federation Bridge, the world’s longest bridge in ice-covered waters, connecting Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Ice engineering has been around for some 40 years, since oil drilling started in the Arctic.

Wildlife

Few marine mammals are in the Great Lakes, but Icebreaker has faced opposition for its potential impact on migrating birds and bats.

It had to conduct extra environmental assessment because of this, but is being allowed to proceed despite the objections of some bird advocacy groups.

The US’s largest bird group, the National Audubon Society, in July expressed conditional support for the project as long as the OPSB adopts 34 staff recommendations on bird protections.

The US Department of Energy has noted only "minor" potential impacts on migratory birds because the project is small.

Icebreaker has received funding under a US Department of Energy programme for demonstration offshore projects — an initial $4 million followed by further R&D support —for its innovative technology.

Advantages of the site, 12.8km off the city of Cleveland, is that the project will be in shallow waters in the shallowest of the Great Lakes; and near a load centre.

Icebreaker is almost certain to get built, even though some opposition has been funded by Murray Energy, the country’s largest private coal company, which is based near Cleveland. 

However, the Great Lakes are not expected to see any wind development beyond Icebreaker within the next 10-15 years.

Apart from lower electricity prices in the region — in contrast with areas such as New England or California — there are abundant sites remaining to build onshore wind or solar projects, while hydro-generrated power can be imported from Manitoba across the Canadian border.

Another obstacle to further offshore development in the Great Lakes is that today’s turbine sizes require installation vessels larger than can transit the St. Lawrence Seaway, the only access to the lakes from the Atlantic, points out Anthony Logan from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Icebreaker will use a crane barge with a crawler crane and jack-up legs to stabilise the vessel, an approach that was used in installing Westermeerwind in Ijsselmeer in the Netherlands.

Icebreaker’s site is in waters just 18 metres deep and the turbines are relatively small at 3.45MW.

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