Great Lake of Power: Can Erie overcome uncertainty?

19 May 2015 (Last Updated May 19th, 2015 18:30)

The Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation recently criticised the US for "lagging woefully behind" the rest of the world in developing offshore wind projects. Through its own Icebreaker project, offering a potential 50GW from offshore freshwater turbines on Lake Erie, the organisation is seeking to boost a domestic supply chain and increase support across the country for wind power. We look at LEEDCo and its Icebreaker ambition to capitalise on the power of Lake Erie.

Great Lake of Power: Can Erie overcome uncertainty?

Lake Erie

Lake Erie took its name in large part because of its unpredictable nature. It is fitting, then, that the fourth largest of the great lakes should be at the centre of one of the world’s most unpredictable modern issues, as it tries to become the home of America’s first freshwater offshore wind developments.

Founded in late 2009 by the Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) started out with the aim of establishing a wind turbine development in the lake called Icebreaker to capitalise on its estimated power potential of 50GW per year. With the support of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the Cleveland Foundation, City of Cleveland and the Cuyahoga and Lorain Counties of Ohio, the not-for-profit has since expanded its goal to not only build the project, but establish an industry capable of underpinning it.

While its longer-term vision is to generate 1000MW of wind energy by 2020, the organisation is currently working towards establishing a six-turbine pilot project seven miles off the shore of downtown Cleveland – in what would be the first offshore freshwater project in North America. After carrying out early geological tests and feasibility and wildlife studies on the site, LEEDCo successfully secured a lease option from the State of Ohio in 2011 – this gives the organisation exclusive rights to the site while it carries out further assessments and tests on turbines to ensure optimal placement.

Icebreaker offers an abundance of potential

With coal power under pressure on both environmental and economic fronts, LEEDCo sees an increasing need to develop alternative power sources to fill the gap. "The question is; how do we replace that retiring capacity?" said Eric Ritter, communications and strategy manager at LEEDCo. "Natural gas is a big piece of the puzzle, but we have to recognize the value of a balanced portfolio of energy sources. The fact is that offshore wind in Lake Erie is by far the most abundant renewable resource in our region, and Icebreaker is the key to unlocking that resource."

Explaining the decision to switch its objective from simply developing a project to trying to build an industry to support it, Ritter said: "Our options were to either look to Europe and hire suppliers that had the specific manufacturing capabilities, or go the local route and identify those manufacturers with similar capabilities, then hone those capabilities to meet our offshore standards and requirements."

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In support of that objective, the group partnered with Cleveland-based manufacturing support organization WIRE-Net to identify a domestic steel fabricator capable of manufacturing the steel monopolies required for offshore wind projects. Through the collaboration, Cleveland-based fabricator American Tank & Fabricating was announced as the partner for the Icebreaker project. "Offshore wind in Lake Erie has huge potential and we look forward to collaborating with LEEDCo on this project," said Michael Ripich, CEO of AT&F. "Bringing manufacturers on board at this early stage is the best way to develop the most cost-effective design."

In addition to AT&F, LEEDCo has also announced a number of US partners for the project. Professor David Zeng will lead a team from Case Western Reserve University on conducting lab tests to validate the design, while a part of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center will study the ice formations in the lake to inform the load analysis. Washington-based Sound and Sea Technology will also work to provide geophysical and geotechnical support.

Project forges local industry links

In terms of the turbines for the project, LEEDCo has selected the SWT 3.0MW turbine from Siemens, with the work being carried out in the German company’s US operations. The project will also use UK-based firm Offshore Design Engineering to ensure the project is executed safely, on time and under budget.

There is clear power potential in Lake Erie and the Icebreaker project has set the turbines in motion to establish a domestic supply chain. But in order for it to succeed, it must also garner significant support on the financial and political fronts.

Locally, it has industrial support, with companies and support services keen to exploit an opportunity for economic growth. It has also received the full backing of Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson. Commenting on the project, he said: "This engineering initiative is hugely exciting because it is one more step on the path to creating a new advanced energy economy in Greater Cleveland. Building offshore wind projects in Lake Erie sets our region on a path to creating jobs and protecting one of our country’s most important freshwater resources."

”The fact is that offshore wind in Lake Erie is by far the most abundant renewable resource in our region, and Icebreaker is the key to unlocking that resource."

However, on the national level, its favour has proven less fruitful than other projects. While it was awarded a $4m grant from the Department of Energy in 2012 to support a demonstration program, and a further $3m to finalise the design in 2014, it has missed out on a major funding package from the government, while other projects received up to $47m.

While the organisation admitted that the failure to secure a greater amount of public funds was a setback for the project, it remains determined to bring wind power to Lake Erie. Recently, LEEDCo president Lorry Wagner revealed that it had received letters of intent from nine banks and has held in-depth discussions with a number of them.

From public spirit to private investment

"We’ve been working with them to make sure we satisfy what they want," said Wagner, who confirmed that the group aims to provide the banks with long-term purchase agreements of the power, regulatory approvals and firmer assessments of proposed capital expenditure.

That the proposed funding mechanism of the Icebreaker project has shifted from public to private, like LEEDCo’s decision to expand its goal to establish an entire industry to support the project, owes to the unpredictable nature of renewable energy. And for that, Lake Erie is perfect.

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