The day they raise those gleaming white metal towers over the waters of Lake Erie and cap them with slender turbine blades, Greater Cleveland will owe a small debt to Sweden. Even if the development path is different, Sweden's success installing ten, 3-megawatt wind turbines on a freshwater lake in the middle part of that Scandanavian country breaks a barrier halfway across the globe for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo).
Sweden's proof of concept should be more valuable to morale than being the first freshwater wind farm in the world for the fledgling LEEDCo, now in its third year of efforts to erect five turbines that will rise seven miles off the shores of downtown Cleveland.
The fortitude it took the Swedes to gut out ten years of development should make Northern Ohio's effort seem that much more attainable. The Swedish company, ReWind Offshore, used that time to figure out a more cost effective building method, dealt with environmental concerns and set up a three-part ownership model consisting of a community cooperative, government and a private party.
ReWind Offshore managing director, Ake Pettersson Frykberg, and chief executive, Tore Wizelius, shared lessons from its Vindpark Vanern, which is named for an inland lake marked by more placid but also colder conditions than is found in Lake Erie.
The Swedes were at Case Western Reserve University, not at the invitation of LEEDCo. Sarah Taylor, a local wind advocate, reached out to the pair when she discovered they had a trip scheduled to meet with officials in Ann Arbor, Michigan (once again, the Buckeye state comes out on top). The pair confirmed that Cleveland is the first place they've appeared in the U.S.
They fielded questions from Cleveland iron workers to business executives, including former Fairmount Minerals CEO, Chuck Fowler. What made the wind park economically feasible? What factors drove the design, and what innovations resulted from figuring out a new environment?
Giving the project legs is Sweden's green certification market. It requires utilities to sell 17.5% solar and wind. "And if you produce power, you can sell it," Frykberg adds. "The market existed for 10 years. So the state does not have to pay. Only the pilot money."
Sweden's national government invested the equivalent of $7 million U.S. dollars in research and development. Similar to LEEDco's goal of 1,000 megawatts of clean energy by 2020, ReWind has plans to scale its first project into a large offshore wind park with 20 to 60 turbines.
But first they had to figure out the economics of building wind offshore. It can be a daunting proposition for technical reasons, which tend to raise the costs. But, due to greater sustained wind strengths at sea, ReWind predicts an 8 year return on investment for the Vanern project.
It took some unusual maneuvering to get the project going. Frykberg left his business postion to enter into politics—he was elected Vice Mayor of the city of Vanern, as a member of the Green Party, and then became the chairman of the city-owned utility. "It would not have happened otherwise," he says.
Local opposition to the wind park was appeased when studies of bird migration and fishing patterns pinpointed the ideal location, 70 km from shore. The turbines power 20,000 homes a year, or about one-quarter of the city.
Locals who bought an ownership stake of $1,000 pay less for power than what is available on the open market, says Wizelius, who explains owners are not required to pay taxes on the power. Wizelius' books including "Wind Power Plants and Project Development" explain the different ownership models.
Their community cooperative may not be such a far fetched idea in Northern Ohio, says Mike Challender, Sustainability Coordinator at GLIDE & the Lorain County Growth Partnership and a representative on LEEDCo's board of directors. He cites The Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives, Inc. which has 24 electric distribution cooperatives serving "member-consumers" in Ohio.
"Unlike investor-owned utilities that must balance the interest of the consumer with that of Wall Street, electric cooperatives provide services solely in the interest of the member," OREC states on its website. "The results can be amazing. Each and every employee of the rural electric program works for the benefit of the member, while the member is treated with the uncommon distinction that he/she is the owner."
The Swedes, in an attempt to keep costs under control, built the wind park in surprisingly low tech fashion. Most of the manufacturing, such as the pre-cast concrete foundation form, was built at a warehouse at the dock. All of the tower sections are loaded "standing up" on a standard barge to make it easier for a single crane to lift them in to position. They even figured out how to outfit an ordinary barge with pontoons so that it can be rigged up with an ordinary crane.
"When you think of offshore, its usually jack up rigs which cost about $80,000 a day," says Wizelius. "But, we did a lot of small-scale technology, which doesn't cost so much. We worked on cheap barges, ordinary concrete trucks, mobile cranes, anything you can find on a normal construction site. It looks like the Wild West, but it works."
Calmer winds and lower waves offered advantages that a Lake Erie wind farm may not see enough of...to float a barge with a 6-tonne mobile crane on it. But the Swedes' bootstrapping methods show that innovation doesn't have to translate to highest cost. Wind power—because it isn't burning something with toxic effluence—should set up well with a construction process that borrows from standard, proven, even low-tech methods familiar to the trades here.
Still, figuring out the undersea foundation and power lines will require new research and development. And that's why LEEDCo applied for a $40 million, multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
"No one has done more research than we have on offshore freshwater wind," says Challender. "We've been collecting data since 2005. I think we have a good shot at this."