Bringing wind power to the Great Lakes has thus far been a saga of missed opportunities with more time spent on legal challenges than engineering complexities. But is that changing?

The BBC Alberta unloading wind energy components at Keefer Terminal of Port of Thunder Bay

In August, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a green light for construction of a modest 20.7MW demonstration wind farm in Lake Erie. The court decision came six years after a public-private partnership won a Department of Energy grant to build the installation, and two years after a few lakeside residents sued to stop it.

That delay pales in comparison with what’s happening on Lake Ontario. A 380MW project on the Canadian side has been mired in litigation for 11 years, with a Canadian Court of Appeals hearing scheduled for next January.

The Great Lakes offers enormous opportunities for wind-powered energy. So far, however, that potential remains totally unfulfilled. While there’s some evidence that lakes wind power isn’t completely dead in the water, the industry must revive something long dormant.

“I’m hopeful that it will proceed,” said Patrick Fullenkamp, a principal with Greentree Consulting, and an authority on wind farms-related supply chains, who was a consulting engineer on the Lake Erie project and who co-produced a study on opportunities there for American suppliers. “But I can’t make a prediction one way or the other, with all the stuff that has gone on.”

Great Lakes Wind Power: Trying to be More Than an Afterthought

This is a story of lost chances for not just developers, but also North American manufacturers, ports, and logistics providers.

It’s enormously frustrating “because of the [clean energy] opportunity that one sees and the benefits long-term in supply chains and good jobs,” said John Kourtoff, CEO of Trillium Power Wind Corp., the developer of that Lake Ontario project and unquestionably the most ambitious of all lakes-related winds farm proponents.

Oceanic offshore wind power development is generating more and more positive vibes. Development is ramping up rapidly on the Eastern US seaboard, with ambitious plans as well for the West Coast. There’s a growing realization among American government officials, energy companies and environmental advocates alike that offshore wind power can help propel the transformation to renewable energy. With it will come a major source of economic development. States are now falling over each other to attract related businesses and host manufacturing facilities and staging grounds.

By contrast, Great Lakes wind power is barely mentioned in the conversation. It is considered at best an afterthought.

Oceanic “offshore wind is a proven and growing renewable energy technology that can be sited in proximity to coastal load centers,” said a spokesman for New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, in an email. NYSERDA is only now conducting a feasibility study on Great Lakes wind energy potential. “The supply chain [for ocean wind] is readily leveraged from around the world and the wind energy potential is substantially larger than that of freshwater wind energy.”

A Saga of Missed Opportunities

Yet, a decade ago, lakes-related wind power elicited similar talk of immense potential and bountiful opportunities. A 2011 Conference Board of Canada study estimated a total of 35GW of power from wind on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario alone. It set a conservative estimate of 2GW of installed capacity in Ontario waters by 2026, of which 1.6GW was projected to have been up and running by this year.

In the US, something called the Great Lakes Wind Energy Consortium came together in 2012. Composed of federal and state bodies, it at the time estimated total Great Lakes wind power potential at an astounding 750GW. A study conducted for the interstate Great Lakes Commission the following year projected more modest possibilities, anywhere from 1 to 5GW installed capacity by 2030.

The NYSERDA study, which will update estimates and expectations, is expected to be released soon.

NIMBY-ism, a glacial regulatory process and populist politics have combined to completely derail efforts so far.

Plans for the Icebreaker Wind Farm on Lake Erie started to be formulated in 2009, when the city of Cleveland, two Ohio counties and a local foundation launched the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation specifically to develop wind power on the lake. Three other counties and the wind power developer, Oslo-based Fred Olsen Renewables, subsequently joined LEEDCo, which identified a site in 2014 and, two years later, won a $40 million grant from the DoE to construct the wind farm. The Ohio Power Siting Board approved a permit in early 2020, although the board initially ruled that the turbines must shut down at night for much of the year to protect birds and bats. (It reversed course a year later.) Meanwhile, residents of a small lakeside suburb sued the board, accusing it of overreach. For two years, the project was stalled. In August, the Ohio Supreme Court came down squarely in favor of the board.

Before it can continue the project, LEEDCo must now get its own act together. The corporation’s two top executives have left for East Coast projects and Fred Olsen management soured on the prospects because of the lengthy delays.

Trillium’s case was even more confounding — and disappointing. Ontario Province opened up the Canadian side of Lake Ontario to wind farm development in 2005 and Trillium was among the first to lay a claim. The Toronto-based company identified a sweet spot of shallow water and strong winds, some 10 to 15 miles offshore. It’s part way between Prince Edward County, in southern Ontario, and Oswego, NY, north of Syracuse, with the possibility of plugging into grids on both sides of the border. As it waited for environmental clearances, Trillium lined up investors.

But in February 2011, literally the day before Trillium was to close a financing package and begin soliciting bids, the provincial government of then Premier Dalton McGuinty, which had backed development, suddenly pulled the plug, and cancelled all projects, claiming “further scientific research” was necessary. Why it did so remains a mystery, although the McGuinty administration, facing elections later that year, appeared to be pandering to lakeside residents.

Trillium sued the government for damages. In 2013, an appeals court dismissed most of the company’s complaints, although it allowed to proceed the question of whether the government had specifically targeted Trillium.

The case dragged on. In 2018, McGuinty’s former chief of staff was convicted of deliberately scrubbing emails and physically destroyed cellphones to hide evidence of another cancelled power project. Trillium then added an allegation of evidence tampering, called “spoliation,” to its suit. A year back, a court ruled against Trillium, saying such practices were commonplace at the time they took place, although the judge sympathized with the wind developer.

Trillium is appealing the decision.

This is by no means the end of the saga. “No one can build on the lakebed in Ontario without several permits from the Ontario government, so it would be up to the Ontario government to decide if it wants a far-offshore wind development,” said Kourtoff, in a follow-up email. He estimated it would take an additional four to five years after financial close to get the facility up and running.

Challenge of the Great Lakes

Constructing lake wind farms shares many of the same challenges as oceanic offshore wind installations, but also exhibits several major differences.

The advantages are numerous, Kourtoff said. Two are obvious: Fresh water and insignificant wave size. The lack of salt corrosiveness, for example, reduces the cost of equipment purchase and upkeep considerably, Kourtoff said. “In the oceans, you have to buy the more costly sort of specialized pressurized wind turbines, and they get all mucked up,” he said. “Their costs are substantially more than expected for their operations and maintenance because of the corrosion of salt.”

As with oceanic offshore wind farms, the water’s depth determines both the installation difficulty and the necessary technology. Great Lakes water depth is highly variable, although Lake Erie is relatively shallow, while Lake Superior is one of the deepest major lakes in the world. Not surprisingly, both the Erie and Ontario projects are located in shallow waters, which allow straightforward fixed-bottom installation in bedrock.

Using floating turbines would allow far more latitude in placement. It would also counter one environmental complaint against wind turbines, and that’s stirring up sediment when drilling into the lakebed. However, the technology for floating turbines isn’t fully developed yet and is being tailored to the much larger offshore oceanic projects such as the North Sea and the West Coast of the U.S.

The Great Lakes present some unique hurdles for developers as well. Shipping access is one big example. (See sidebar page 17)

Ice flows pose another major challenge, at least in some shallower waters, such as on Lake Erie. However, Fullenkamp said, even designs of the Lake Erie towers from several years back came up with a solution, which involve a kind of funneling system. Sheet metal is welded to the foundation at a 45 degrees angle at ice level. When ice sheets hit the metal, they heave upwards and are broken. This technology, Fullenkamp said, has been deployed successfully in Europe.

A bigger issue may just be the lack of necessary infrastructure. On the Atlantic seaboard, state after state is proposing ambitious plans and offering inducements for manufacturers, suppliers, and stagers to locate locally. Ideally, said Fullenkamp, foundation fabricators, for example, should do the final assembly close to the water.

But even on the East Coast, not every state will be able to attract these plumb opportunities. Manufacturers need economies of scale. A common benchmark for turbine manufacturers to site a dedicated plant, for example, is 1GW per year. “Getting 1 GW in the Great Lakes Region will be a lot more difficult, and probably years out,” said Fullenkamp.

Even the local ports of Cleveland and Toronto don’t have the available space to host Great Lakes projects, should they materialize.