The winds of Lake Michigan — and the rest of the Great Lakes — are an untapped reservoir of renewable energy, according to a project which recently monitored the wind over the Lakes at the height of commercial turbines.
Led by Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center and funded primarily by the US Department of Energy and the Michigan Public Service Commission, the project set a six-tonne buoy at three locations across Lake Michigan — two points near the Muskegon shoreline and about 35 miles off shore.
The buoy shot three laser beams into the air to sense wind speed and direction. These lasers take measurements 1,000 times a second at six elevations — from 20 metres to 175 metres above the water, heights a commercial wind turbine might reach — average the data at one-second intervals and then every 10 minutes send a report home via cell or satellite connection.
“This is really quite an instrument,” said Guy Meadows, formerly of the University of Michigan and now the director of Great Lakes initiatives for the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University who was called in by Grand Valley State to analyse the data stream. Meadows called the results “very interesting” nothing that “in particular, winds measured close to the shoreline were very turbulent, because of the presence of land. But the farther the buoy was from shore, the more the fluctuations were reduced.”
Anyone who knows anything about wind energy will realise just how important this is: the less turbulence and more consistency you have, the more efficient your wind farm will be, and the less stress you’ll place on your turbines.
Understandably, these new results do not necessarily mean we’ll be seeing wind farms sprouting up all over the Great Lakes anytime soon.
“The Great Lakes in general are very wind rich, second only to the Pacific Northwest,” Meadows said. “The question is, how do you capture that energy in an environmentally conscious way? And from an engineering standpoint, how do design equipment that will capture it and survive our most severe weather? These are big challenges.”
So, Michigan Tech and Grand Valley State plan to answer those questions in the next phase of their research, and they are currently seeking funding from the US Department of Energy for the initial engineering and design of floating turbine technology.
Their plan is to design wind turbines and advanced floating platforms that can be installed miles out in the lake. “We want to know, ‘Does it make sense to harvest this from all perspectives?’” Meadows said. “Michigan Tech’s role will be as provider of unbiased data.”
And while the outcome of this new research may provide direct help towards the renewable wind industry, the results are also set to go beyond the feasibility of commercial wind development.
“The Great Lakes behave just as the oceans do, but with one major difference: we drink the water,” Meadows said. “The buoy gives us a tremendous ability to forecast winds and weather, which means we would be much better at telling cities when they need to shut down water intakes because of pollutants.”
And with better wind measurements you’ll also end up with better wave and current prediction, a step helpful for all of the Great Lakes.
“This has been so successful that Michigan Tech is leading an effort to acquire a second buoy for Lake Superior,” Meadows said. If anything, the results should be even more promising than in Lake Michigan, he added. “Throughout the Great Lakes the wind speed increases as we move farther north.”