Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp. continues to explore the possibility of building an offshore wind project in Lake Erie to deliver power for New York state, as development zones off the Atlantic Coast remain in limited supply.

Diamond Offshore Wind, a unit of Mitsubishi Corp., stirred up local opposition last year after submitting an interconnection request with New York’s grid operator for potential capacity in eastern Lake Erie. The developer still believes offshore wind turbines are a good solution for the Great Lakes region as states seek more renewable power and clean energy jobs, CEO Chris Wissemann told GTM.

Diamond Offshore Wind was encouraged by a white paper from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority released this summer, looking at the state’s options for meeting its 70 percent renewable energy target for 2030. In the white paper (PDF), NYSERDA called for a feasibility study to “explore and confirm” the potential benefits of offshore wind in the Great Lakes.

At this stage, Diamond still does not have a specific project under development in Lake Erie. “We’re watching earnestly to see if New York, through this feasibility study, concludes that projects are worthwhile in the Great Lakes,” Wissemann said. “If so, and if that ultimately turns into a solicitation in the next year or two, we’d be keenly interested in participating.”

Great Lakes offshore: Long on potential, short on action

Offshore wind development has moved at a snail’s pace in the Great Lakes, despite longstanding interest and big potential. Much of the focus to date has been on the Icebreaker project offshore Cleveland, backed by the nonprofit Lake Erie Energy Development Corp.

Icebreaker has been under development for 11 years, and although it recently made progress in removing a “poison pill” attached to its approval by the Ohio Power Siting Board, the 20.7-megawatt demonstration project still lacks a clear path to commercial operation.  

Wissemann said future Great Lakes projects will look more like those shaping up along the Atlantic Coast: larger and more competitive on cost. Winter ice endemic to the Great Lakes is not an engineering challenge for turbines affixed to the seabed, and there’s no need to demonstrate any particular technology for freshwater projects to advance, he said. “I think you can go bigger, faster in the Great Lakes.”

The Great Lakes are rimmed by a number of major cities, including Chicago (Lake Michigan) and, on the Canadian side, Toronto (Lake Ontario). New York's second-largest city, Buffalo, sits along eastern Lake Erie.

Offshore wind speeds are slower in the Great Lakes than off the Northeast but still impressive. (Credit: NREL)

Mitsubishi is a major player in the global offshore wind market, with investments in Europe, Japan, and as of this summer, the U.S. through its partial acquisition of the University of Maine’s floating demonstration project.

Diamond Offshore Wind is a subsidiary of Diamond Generating Corporation, a unit of Mitsubishi Corp. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, co-owner of offshore wind turbine supplier MHI Vestas, is a separate and independent company.*

Limited Atlantic sites may boost Great Lakes

Diamond’s interest in the Great Lakes stems from both opportunity and necessity. The last competitive auction for an offshore wind lease in federal waters was held nearly two years ago. While the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is considering future lease sales off New York, California and the Carolinas, it has not said exactly when the next auction will come.

That leaves a growing list of frustrated developers looking to invest in the market but without a clear way of securing a project. The map of existing leases is dominated by a handful of companies, including Ørsted, Iberdrola’s Avangrid and Royal Dutch Shell.

The lack of new zones in federal waters is also squeezing states, particularly New York, which has a 9-gigawatt offshore wind target for 2035. “If you add up the megawatts of capacity that states in the Northeast are seeking, those goals exceed the available BOEM leases,” Wissemann said.

BOEM does not oversee the Great Lakes, opening up the possibility that a state like New York could accelerate development even without BOEM's participation. Just the same, the permitting route is challenging in the Great Lakes, as evidenced by Icebreaker's tortuous history.

An offshore wind port in the Midwest?

The current scramble to secure offshore wind supply-chain investments along the Atlantic Coast may soon find its way to the Great Lakes, Wissemann said. In addition to New York, Illinois has shown a revived interest in offshore wind under Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker.

“I would liken it to the Northeast before Block Island was built,” Wissemann said. “People [in Great Lakes states] are just starting to think about it. If you fast-forward three years, you might find there gets to be a similar race for offshore wind.”

Offshore wind faces challenges in the Great Lakes compared to the Northeast, including water depths that drop off more rapidly, lower wind speeds and greater competition from cheaper onshore renewables than in land-constrained New England.

But the region has unique advantages. Many coal-fired plants have retired or will soon in the Midwest, opening up opportunities to plug offshore wind farms into existing grid infrastructure. There are no hurricanes or huge waves to worry about. And the region has plenty of available port infrastructure — much of it built for the steel industry — that could be converted for offshore wind.

"The Great Lakes has [potential offshore wind] ports that people could only envy on the East Coast," Wissemann said.

“On the East Coast, most of the big ports got developed into something else. Those on the Great Lakes are pretty much sitting fallow.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story suggested Diamond Offshore Wind and MHI Vestas are part of the same company. They are completely separate and independent.