LEEDCo tackles Icebreaker project challenges

Getting the first wind turbines into the Great Lakes won’t be easy, but developer Lake Erie Economic Development Corp. (LEEDCo) is counting on a US-made monopile foundation design and strong public support to help get the job done.

If the planned 19.2MW Icebreaker project is a commercial and technical success, LEEDCo’s market analysis suggests there may be an opportunity over the next decade to supply northeast Ohio with at least 2GW of power from wind farms in Lake Erie.

LEEDCo President Lorry Wagner tells Recharge that Icebreaker is an entree into an industry with enormous potential but one that must prove it is price-competitive for electricity.

‘What price can we get to?’” he asks. “At the end of the day we build this project and we learn. We develop more-cost-effective foundations and installation methodologies, and use the best turbines available. ‘Are we going to be able to get to that 10 to 12 cent per kWh range?’ That’s really what the challenge is.”

LEEDCo, a public-private partnership, has targeted start-up in late 2017 or in 2018 for the project, which will utilize six Siemens 3.2MW turbines. It would be located about 11km offshore facing the City of Cleveland.

“It’s like a lot of things. If you don’t build the first one, you will never build any,” Wagner says, referring to Icebreaker. “It is the same in any industry. You make a bet and we are trying to make a mostly private bet. It’s really creating an opportunity to go forward,” he adds.

LEEDCo has assembled an international team to complete detailed engineering on a conceptual monopile foundation design that it developed through a US Department of Energy (DOE) competition. Last May, DOE awarded it about $3m to help do this, after bypassing Icebreaker to provide three other early stage offshore projects $46.7m each to demonstrate different technologies.

UK-based Offshore Design Engineering will lead detailed engineering of the foundation, while Case Western Reserve University in Ohio will conduct laboratory testing to validate the design. DNV GL will act as the Certified Verification Agent for the engineering design and will develop an independent coupled model to verify LEEDCo’s engineering models.

Lake Erie ice

As a first-of-a-kind project, LEEDCo faces a raft of technical challenges and start-up costs. Some involve marine construction and installation activities, while others include locating suitable port and onshore substation infrastructure, and the right kinds of vessels. It must also assemble local supply chains.

The project’s name is no coincidence. A big technical challenge the project will face is ice in freshwater Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. With an average depth of only 23-meters, it can freeze over during harsh winters, creating enormous ice loads capable of bending steel.

Over time, ice thickness can average half a meter during sustained periods of cold temperature. Even more worrisome are ice ridges and keels that form when sheet ice breaks and then comes back together and freezes again in jagged pieces.

“You have all that rubble that piles up and goes below the water. When that rubble freezes like ice cubes in your refrigerator, it is hard as a rock. That is what defines our design criteria for the foundation,” says Wagner.

Surprisingly, not much information exists about Lake Erie ice ridges and keels, according to Wagner. Anecdotal evidence suggests that keels have been as deep as 14 meters and ridges as high as perhaps five meters. “That’s a pretty big mass of ice,” he says.

While it is not clear that such extreme ice structures would form in Cleveland Bay where Icebreaker will be located, LEEDCo is not taking chances. It has enlisted Eranti Engineering in Finland to do ice characterization analysis and to identify structural innovations that will address potential impacts from ice loading.

Eranti has been planning and leading the structural and geotechnical design of the offshore Pori I and II projects in the northern Baltic Sea. Along with partner Technip Offshore Finland, it has been testing an ice-resistant steel-shell foundation with a utility-scale wind turbine offshore since 2010. 

The LEEDCo design will employ an “ice cone” attached to the foundation at water level to break up large sheets of ice come in contact with it. “What we want to do is come up with a design that can be made in America in terms of steel plate size, the types of welds and specs. Then when we go to build the thing, we hope that a US manufacturer can be competitive,” says Wagner.

The Finnish firm will work closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories. CRREL will be responsible for assembling historical data on winter severity and thermal ice growth including ice cover maps and statistics from 1973 to present for Lake Erie. It will also perform satellite detection and tracking of ice ridges, and thermodynamic ice ridge model development and impact testing.

Public support

LEEDCo last summer did a door-to-door survey campaign in 22 counties in northeast Ohio, calling on 15,000 homes. The results were gratifying, says Wagner. About 92% of those queried said they backed the project. Among those that did, 62% said they were willing to pay 10% more on their electric bills to show their support.

When asked why they would make such an economic commitment, project supporters said because Icebreaker will either help clean up the environment or provide an economic benefit for the region. Wagner says support for the project was strongest in economically depressed and transitional communities where the population is changing from older to newer immigrants.

“We have a demographic that is crying out for better living conditions and a better society. We’re just here in this point in time where it works for them,” he says. “The economic proposition and our door-to-door campaign showed there is a market for the electricity from this project.”

Icebreaker will create perhaps as many as 500 jobs during construction and procurement, with 10% permanent. The potential is for many more if LEEDCo perfects the foundation design for future projects in the Great Lakes and potentially those along the US Atlantic coast.

Coal-dependent Ohio has some of the dirtiest air of any US state and power plants deposit about 800 pounds of toxic mercury a year into Lake Erie, according to Wagner. “Industry has always used the lake for water supply or for dumping waste,” he notes, leaving little space for recreation or beautification.

“That is changing over time as power plants close and people tend to recognize that original decision made 100 or 150 years ago doesn’t play today. The lakefront is being reclaimed. It’s like we’re coming out of a fog,” says Wagner