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Could Giant Suction Cups Turn Lake Erie Into a Regional Energy Hub?

The Icebreaker project represents a major innovation in offshore wind farming.

By Daniel J. McGraw


Mono Buckets awaiting installation for the Dogger Bank wind farm in the North Sea off Yorkshire, England. (Photo: Universal Foundation)

Even though it was three years ago, Lorry Wagner still shakes his head in amazement over the serendipity of the encounter. It was at a wind energy conference in the Canary Islands where Wagner found himself sitting at a table next to Fred Olsen, the87-year-old Norwegian billionaire who’s heir to a business empire that includes cruise ships, North Sea oil drilling, and, strangely enough, Timex watches.

Wagner, a 65-year-old engineer who’d made a career in nuclear energy, had been a regulatory consultant to big utility companies, assisting them in the transfer of power from the grid into homes.

Wagner and Olsen had been part of the old guard energy hierarchy, but by the time of their meeting three years ago, both had re-focused on renewable wind energy. And though environmental concerns were certainly a part of their respective visions, the focus for both men was more about making green energy more economically viable.

Olsen had started investing in wind energy technology 20 years ago with his company, Fred.Olsen Renewables, one of the largest independent wind energy producers in Europe. Their first wind farm in Great Britain began producing electricity in 2003. Wagner had been shepherding a non-profit group in Cleveland — the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) — for about 10 years with the goal of getting a small offshore wind farm running in Lake Erie.

What started as friendly conversation — “we found out we had both done international racing of power boats and sailing ships,” Wagner recalls, along with a mutual interest in scuba diving and the maritime history of shipwrecks — quickly turned to business. And the business they discussed, oddly enough, was how to use what were basically suction cups to mount huge wind turbines to the bottom of the seas as an innovative way to anchor the turbines and substantially cut costs.

Yes, suction cups. But more on that later.

“He asked where I’m from, and when I tell him Cleveland, he starts rattling off the water depth of Lake Erie, how the glaciers formed the lakes, the sediments on the bottom and the wind speeds and the ice cover during the winter,” Wagner says. “I was kind of in shock that he knew so much.”

“The energy we make in Lake Erie will be used by a huge population within 100 miles.”

Then, in what must have been music to Wagner’s ears, Olsen asked why the United States would consider building its first offshore wind farm anywhere but the Great Lakes. “I tell him, ‘That’s what I’ve been saying for years,’” Wagner says.

Over the next three years, the relationship between LEEDCo and Fred.Olsen Renewables has blossomed into a business project called Icebreaker, which will result in six wind turbines located about eight miles northwest of Cleveland, in 60-foot-deep Lake Erie waters, cranking out 20 megawatts of electricity by the fall of 2018.

Icebreaker is still only a pilot project at this point in terms of size, but Olsen has indicated this will be the entry point into the U.S. market for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes and American waters.

How does one stick a 500-foot-tall turbine to the bottom of Lake Erie? Suction cups, of course.

Expense has long been a problem for offshore wind farms, specifically the cost to attach the turbine’s foundation to the ocean floor or lakebed. The traditional method has always been to drill the foundation to the bedrock under the sea bottom — which can be up to several hundred meters down from the surface. That can mean using very expensive equipment, a long time frame to do the work, and environmental disruption undersea from drilling into silt and sediment and rock formations in an already sensitive ecological environment.

The suction cup technology innovation (dubbed the “mono bucket”) was developed by Danish engineers in 2002 and acquired by Olsen’s company five years ago. The design and engineering is based on similar foundation attachments in offshore oil drilling.

This fairly new technology so impressed the Department of Energy (DOE) that, in May, the agency awarded $40 million to Icebreaker. “The innovative Mono Bucket foundation will reduce installation time, costs, and environmental impacts compared to traditional foundations that require pile driving,” the DOE said in announcing the grant. “The Mono Bucket not only is a solution for the Great Lakes, but also has broader national applicability for offshore wind installations off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.”

The DOE’s backing of the Icebreaker project is indicative of a shift in the country’s offshore wind energy development. For one thing, the offshore wind projects favored in the past by the federal government had always been on the coasts, but cost issues and opposition by groups who live in communities close to either — especially in Northeast states — have made offshore wind projects difficult to move forward.

The Midwest has historically used waterfront locations for its coal-fired power plants, and the electrical grids are often close to the water. The grid in Cleveland links up Chicago and New York and most of Eastern Canada. (Remember the 2003 blackout?) Wind farms on the relatively faraway Great Plains must pay higher costs in order to link to the power grid, and that’s no guarantee for quality: The greater the distance between grid and wind turbines, the more likely a loss of energy produced (known as “transmission loss”). The Icebreaker project is just eight miles from the main grid in Cleveland.

Even more important than the performance is the implication of the DOE’s grant: that the U.S. is finally backing foreign investment in offshore wind energy. Past offshore projects in the U.S. have been stalled by a lack of both expertise and private funding. In this case, Fred.Olsen Renewables is providing its experience in the field—and $80 million of its own money—for Icebreaker.


(Photo: Universal Foundation)

“We see this Icebreaker project as a significant piece to the puzzle of developing offshore wind energy in the U.S. market,” says Kristian Jacobsen, the product manager for Universal Foundation, a Fred.Olsen Renewables subsidiary based in Denmark that manufactures and installs the wind farms’ mono bucket. “If we can demonstrate the effectiveness of the mono bucket in Lake Erie, we can then use what we learn from that to the far more complex site conditions we will likely encounter in the Atlantic Ocean off the northeast U.S. coast.”

The steel mono bucket is a cylindrically shaped large drum that attaches to the sea bed on the bottom and the turbine pole to its top. The huge metal drum — about 40 to 60 feet in diameter, with 400-ton suction cup-like foundations—is lowered into the water by ship or barge. After the bucket hits the bottom, the water is pumped out of the interior and a vacuum is created, sinking the bucket five to eight meters into the sediment.

It is the combination of the weight and the vacuum that keeps the foundation in place, and engineers have long referred to this as the “boot effect,” the gravitational force that pulls a boot off when a person walks through muck. Similar suction caisson foundations have been used in offshore oil and gas drilling for about 30 years, with about 2,000 of such rigs operational in the world at present.

“It isn’t the stickiness of the mud that pulls the boot off, it’s the suction that is created underneath that is the main force,” Wagner says. “Same thing with the mono bucket.”

The mono bucket has already been used on four projects in the United Kingdom and Denmark. (Most notably, a project in the North Sea, off the British coast, required 29 wind turbines to be anchored to the sea bed.)

“One of the problems we’ve had with land-based wind farm projects in this country is that people are less enthusiastic about producing energy in their backyard when it is shipped somewhere else.”

Installing traditional offshore foundations often involves a massive diesel hammer that’s suspended on a construction crane mounted on a barge or ship to pound (60-meter long , 700-ton, three-meter wide) concrete-filled steel pipes into the bedrock underwater. These “pile driving” foundations are not ideal, from either expense or efficiency standpoints: A mono bucket can be installed within a 12-hour window, Jacobsen says, while the traditional foundation can take weeks and cost $100,000 per day in labor and equipment.

The pile driving foundations can also dredge up pollutants that have been buried deep in the sediment for decades—which could be an issue in the Great Lakes. Preliminary studies conducted in European locations using the mono bucket shows it does not disrupt the environment much — from not having to drill in the bottom and far less noise in installation.

“From the beginning, we saw this as a project that would use the Great Lakes as a clean wind energy producer,” Wagner says. “This is all about the transitional economy.”

So what makes Lake Erie specifically a desirable location?

The lake is by far the shallowest of the Great Lakes (making foundation attachment easier), and wave action is far less frequent than in oceans and deeper lakes. Plus, Lake Erie has about 10,000 square miles of surface area, meaning the wind turbines can be placed farther away from shipping channels, and not directly in the eye of the large populations living on the shoreline (the Icebreaker turbines will look roughly the size of a dime when viewed from downtown Cleveland).

Another factor: the wind. The Cleveland area boasts decent wind speed — ranked eighth in wind speed among large urban U.S. metro areas — but the location also cut costs because of its port access, it has manufacturing capability for parts needed, and the leasing fees are far lower than a farm in Iowa from a farm owner (the lake bottom is owned by the state and the lease fees are minimal).

There is also a political and cultural benefit to being close to the Cleveland grid. “One of the problems we’ve had with land-based wind farm projects in this country is that people are less enthusiastic about producing energy in their backyard when it is shipped somewhere else,” Wagner says. “So people in Wyoming might not be as supportive because most of the electricity they make from wind turbines won’t be used by them. Our selling point, and the support we have locally, is that the energy we make in Lake Erie will be used by a huge population within 100 miles.”

Fred.Olsen Renewables will own the project after it is completed (it is contractually obligated to purchase the assets from LEEDCo when the first turbines are installed). The Norwegians plan to use Cleveland as their base to expand wind energy, much as they have done in Europe, and they plan on selling the electricity into the grid just as any other energy producer would. About 75 percent of the amount produced for the Icebreaker project has been guaranteed to be bought by the Cleveland Public Power utility.

While the U.S. has no active offshore wind farms at this time, there are currently about 85 offshore projects in Europe, with more than 3,200 turbines operating in 11 countries. Fred.Olsen Renewables own 25 farms (either proposed or in operation) across Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.

While science and free market forces will ultimately decide whether Great Lakes wind is a viable energy source, one cannot discount the personalities of the two who are intricately involved. When Olsen was 20, he was the heir to a shipping magnate fortune, but decided to forego college and work as a deck hand for a few years on the family cargo vessels. That hands-on and more simplistic approach allowed him to move his company from being a North Sea oil producer to being one of the pioneers in wind energy because of his personal views on global warming.

“If the warming continues,” Olsen told Fortune magazine in a rare interview last year from his home in Oslo, “the oceans will rise, and the place we’re sitting now, and many cities, will be under water … I used to fly over the North Pole and all you saw was thick white ice, cracked like the surface of an oil painting. Now you see lots of black water, and that accelerates the heating of the oceans.”

Like Olsen, Wagner is very much about learning by getting his hands dirty. He is a certified scuba diver, and works with a group that investigates shipwrecks In Lake Erie. Last year, they found a sunken barge, dated to the 1930s, that was still leaking toxic oil sludge into the lake from its cargo holds. Their discovery initiated an Environmental Protection Agency clean-up.

“The Great Lakes were used 100 years ago as the cooling component and the dumping ground for energy production that drove the economy in the Midwest,” he says. “We want to use the expertise we have in energy production and the lake as a resource in better ways, ways that bring economic growth in a different era.”