This story was updated at 10:29 a.m. EDT.
Ohio yesterday unanimously approved the Icebreaker wind farm, North America's first offshore freshwater project, planned for just off the Cleveland shore in Lake Erie.
The ruling by Ohio's Power Siting Board came a decade after plans for the project began to take shape and is contingent on a series of nearly three dozen conditions to be satisfied before, during and after construction. Included is a requirement that the project go silent for months of the year to protect birds and bats.
The order also is a turning point for Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo), a Cleveland-based public-private partnership that's developing the project with partner and investor Fred. Olsen Renewables of Norway. But LEEDCo's president said the condition to stop turbines from March through October could ultimately be fatal to the project.
"We are extremely disappointed the Board took this unfortunate step backward for clean energy in Ohio," the group's president, Dave Karpinski, said in a statement this morning. "We are stunned." The decision reneges on an agreement with the board last May, he said.
Supporters of the project on the board said, however, that the move was a "historic development."
It "will provide a significant economic impact, contribute to energy diversification and improve the quality of life in our region," said state Sen. Sandra Williams (D) of Cleveland, a nonvoting member of the board.
Erik Nordman, a professor at Grand Valley State University, said the project is an opportunity to "show that offshore wind is viable in the Great Lakes."
"If they can demonstrate offshore wind is economically, environmentally and socially feasible, then other states might take another look at their permitting processes," he said.
The 20.7-megawatt Icebreaker project is planned for 8 to 10 miles off the Lake Erie shore and will be connected by an underwater cable to a Cleveland Public Power substation.
It is partially funded through Department of Energy grants and involves six turbines rising almost 500 feet above the lake that would generate about 75,000 megawatt-hours of energy per year to be sold into the grid operated by PJM Interconnection LLC.
As originally proposed, Icebreaker was to be operational by the fall of 2017. The latest deadline cited is 2022.
To reach that target, hurdles must be overcome such as ensuring turbines can withstand the force of ice floes during winter.
The project will rely on huge, cone-shaped turbine bases to break the winter ice on Lake Erie as well as special "mono bucket" turbine foundations — mammoth steel suction cups that will be fixed to the floor of the lake — meant to ensure the structures can handle subsurface ice keels.
And locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway aren't wide enough for special vessels used to install turbines in the Atlantic Ocean, so Icebreaker requires a barge retrofitted with jack-up legs and a large crawler crane.
Perhaps the greatest uncertainty regarding the future of wind energy in the Great Lakes, besides public acceptance, is whether the cost of the energy can compete in a rapidly evolving electric grid, given the massive capital investments that will be required.
LEEDCo has agreements to sell about two-thirds of the power to the municipal utility in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. As of last fall, it was seeking large energy users to purchase the remaining output.
Birds, coal and restrictions
The project is facing a legal challenge and public opposition from a variety of interests, including some conservation groups.
A focus of the Ohio siting process has been the impacts of Icebreaker on birds and bats in what has been designated a globally significant "Important Bird and Biodiversity Area."
Two groups — the American Bird Conservancy and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory — filed a lawsuit against the federal government to block the project (Energywire, Dec. 13, 2019). The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is still pending.
Both groups said yesterday that they're disappointed by the board's decision.
"We think this project should be stopped," Steve Holmer, the American Bird Conservancy's vice president of policy, said in an interview. "It's not an appropriate location. We still have concerns that the technology and our ability to mitigate the risks can't be overcome."
Don Bauman, chairman of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, said the exposure risk posed by the project both to wintering and migratory birds is "very high" and that conditions attached in the board's order could have been better.
"The primary driving force in our efforts, as recognized bird experts in the field, was to stop the project going forward until its merits could be judged in the light of sound ecological science," Bauman said in an email. "We failed in that regard, obviously. But also, we hoped to have a positive impact upon the quality and rigor of ecological [science] being done in conjunction with wind development projects."
Icebreaker was also the target of the coal industry and Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., which acknowledged paying for the legal and expert witness expenses for two northern Ohio residents — the only formal opponents in proceedings at the Power Siting Board.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club that championed the project, however, agreed with developers that the board went too far with restrictions on when the wind farm can operate. Requirements to "feather" turbines, or stop them from spinning for much of the year, are "extreme and seriously undermine the ability for the project to raise capital to begin turbine construction," said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council.
More than 1,000 public comments were submitted to the board during the three years the case was pending. Yesterday's order said comments were evenly split between backers and opponents, some of whom took to a public Facebook page to vent frustration at the approval.
While not popular with some, yesterday's approval does bring some degree of regulatory clarity.
The board's order includes 33 conditions that developers must meet before, during and after construction.
"As a first-of-its-kind project the actual impacts of the facility are, naturally, still unknown," the 111-page order said. "This is obviously not unexpected because, as a demonstration project, the aim of this facility is to gather knowledge that will better inform us and the public going forward."
Sam Randazzo, the chairman of the board and head of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said the order includes a "public and transparent data collection and submission process to better inform the board stakeholders and the public on questions and risks related to the construction and operation of the turbines."
The conditions include radar studies and a bird and bat impact mitigation plan, including a collision monitoring plan.
The Icebreaker project will also be required to stop turbines during nighttime hours from March 1 through October when there is heightened risk to bird and bat populations. The operator can seek to modify the condition after submitting monitoring information to the board.
The board certificate approved yesterday is among eight major permits from more than a dozen state and federal agencies that developers must secure before building the project.
As the project name suggests, Icebreaker is aimed at proving the viability of offshore wind in the Great Lakes, including the regulatory approval process.
Williams, the state senator from Cleveland, said yesterday's approval will help pave the way for future projects.
"I believe that this will be something that other states across the country will be looking at us for direction," she said during yesterday's meeting.
Nordman, the Grand Valley State University professor, said the permitting process is the first barrier for many states.
"Most other states and provinces don't have regulations in place that could even permit an offshore wind farm. I think the lack of a clear permitting process hinders interest from developers. But if developers aren't interested, then there's no rush to take the political risk in proposing a new permitting process. It's a Catch-22," he said.
This story was updated to reflect a morning statement from Icebreaker's developer.