Intelligent Energy

The Great Lakes: contender for first U.S. offshore wind farm?

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Midwest vs. East Coast: An Ohio company makes a play to become the nation's first offshore, and freshwater, wind farm.

The nation's first offshore wind farm will likely rise from the salty surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But a project in the Midwest is hoping to beat the East Coast to it.

For all parties, the race to be first is more like a marathon. Its hurdles include years of public dissent, technological challenges, and deep funding. Still Freshwater Wind tells NPR they are in it to win it. Their finish line is Lake Erie, about 7 miles northwest of the Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The plan is to start slow, with five 4-megawatt turbines from General Electric. The farm will be small but not the turbines, and not the price. At $20 million each, they will stand more than 200 feet tall, with blades stretching 150 feet. Lake Erie Energy Development Corp (LEEDCo), an Ohio non-profit promoting offshore wind, wants to see 1,000 megawatts of capacity in Lake Erie by 2020. This could potentially produce enough power for 200,000 homes.

Over on the north side of the lakes, the Ontario government benched its immediate plans for turbines on Lake Ontario in February. So far, Sweden leads the world in freshwater wind farms, but only by one. Dynawind’s 10 turbines whir over 330-foot waters in Lake Vänern. This 30-megawatt wind farm just went commercial last May, and how it performs (economically and environmentally) could guide the others trailing behind them.

Freshwater Wind, for instance, is looking into how a wind farm and a Lake Erie winter mix. How the turbines' bases handle the lake's ice floes are the concern—something the Atlantic's seafaring turbines wouldn't encounter. Disrupted scenic views and water depths are also challenges that Great Lake projects face, and again, funding.

Lorry Wagner, head of LEEDCo, tells NPR:

We know we have to get [the cost] down to approximately half of what it is today and that's an immense challenge; we don't have any illusions about how difficult this is going to be.

And they better hurry up. Despite Cape Wind's recent setback of the DOE tabling its application for loan guarantees, the controversial Nantucket wind farm remains in the running. Siemens told Bloomberg on Tuesday that the company is willing to finance the whole project. Game on?

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Image: Vindpark Vänern

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure