First Great Lakes wind project recommended for approval

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, July 9, 2018

What would be the first offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes moved a step closer to development last week when the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) staff recommended approval of the project in Lake Erie.

The board included a list of almost three dozen conditions, many of which centered on the impact of the 20-megawatt Icebreaker wind project on birds and bats.

The Icebreaker project, which would consist of six 3.45-MW turbines about 8 to 10 miles offshore of Cleveland and reaching 480 feet above the surface of Lake Erie, would be the first wind project in the Great Lakes and the first freshwater wind farm in the United States.

The project application with state regulators is the result of nearly a decade’s worth of planning by a public-private partnership in northern Ohio called the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., or LEEDCo. The project’s funded in part with a $40 million Department of Energy grant.

The project’s name has a double meaning. It refers both to the huge, cone-shaped turbine bases that would be used to break the winter ice on Lake Erie, but also the demonstration project’s purpose to pave the way for future offshore developments in the Great Lakes

For now, offshore wind in the Great Lakes isn’t economically competitive. But developers see potential for it to take off in much the same way it has in Europe and, more recently, the East Coast, as improved technology and economies of scale cut costs. And the robust winds blowing across the Great Lakes hold potential not only to provide emissions-free electric generation, but also an economic jolt for Ohio.

“We have a manufacturing base here. We have a supply chain here that’s poised to launch a new clean energy industry,” said Beth Nagusky, director of sustainable development for LEEDCo.

The Icebreaker project requires approval from about a dozen local, state and federal agencies before the start of construction, now scheduled to begin in the summer of 2020. Operation is expected to begin late the next year.

Developers are still awaiting a final environmental assessment as well as other permits from the Ohio EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. But the key state approval will come from the OPSB, which will host a public hearing next week and an adjudicatory hearing in August before issuing a final decision later this year.

The Icebreaker project would generate about 75,000 megawatt-hours of energy annually sent onto the PJM Interconnection grid through 12 miles of cable buried 5 feet below the lake bottom.

The project has support from labor unions; local and state elected officials; and environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council and Environmental Defense Fund, all of which highlight the importance of reducing reliance on fossil-fuel-based energy to combat climate change.

Conservation groups, too, cite the importance of addressing climate change. But they’ve been careful to embrace the project — and the process used to analyze the impacts on birds and bats — because they see the project and regulatory approval process setting the bar for future, larger wind farms in the Great Lakes.

“Those standards would probably set the tone for the entire Great Lakes,” said Garry George, renewable energy director for the National Audubon Society.

The Audubon Society submitted formal comments to the siting board in the fall, asking the developer and regulators to set a standard for data collection, analysis and planning before approving the project. The comments referenced a moratorium on offshore wind projects in lakes Ontario, Huron and Erie that was established by the province of Ontario because of good science on environmental impacts.

The group was still reviewing the staff report on Friday, but George said he was encouraged by the conditions it laid out.

Meanwhile, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio, continues to oppose the Icebreaker project and doesn’t think the site is suitable for a wind project. Like Audubon, the group cites the area’s status as a globally significant “Important Bird Area” based on the many water birds that use the central basin of Lake Erie, including the red-breasted merganser.

The observatory is encouraged by the terms of a memorandum of understanding between Icebreaker and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources signed last summer regarding impacts on birds and bats, which includes pre- and post-construction radar monitoring programs, said Mark Shieldcastle, research director for the observatory.

Now it’s up to the developer to meet the conditions laid out by staff and the terms of the MOUs, Shieldcastle said.

“This is where the rubber hits the road — are they going to be held to that?” he said. “Certification [by the OPSB] means nothing if they don’t meet the MOU.”

The Audubon Society, meanwhile, has called for a “programmatic look” by states and the U.S. and Canadian governments at the future of wind energy development in the Great Lakes, its impact on wildlife and where projects are best-suited.

George said, “We think that would be a much smarter approach than the project-by-project level which we have now.”

Among the conditions included in the Ohio regulatory filing recommending project approval is a bird and bat monitoring plan to allow turbines to operate at night between March 1 and Jan. 1. Until state regulators sign off on a plan, board staff recommends turbines be “feathered” during those times.

The staff’s investigation also recommends a requirement that the project developer meet terms in MOUs with the Ohio DNR, one of the state agencies represented on the OPSB.

Among the terms of one of the MOUs is the establishment of a radar-monitoring program during a spring and fall migration season prior to construction, as well as the use of radar for collision monitoring for birds and bats during two spring and fall seasons after construction.

LEEDCo.’s Nagusky said the OPSB staff determination that the Icebreaker project meets the public interest and, with the added conditions, represents the minimum adverse environmental impact is an important milestone.

“The staff report was a very positive development and a big step for us,” she said in an interview.

Nagusky said she’s “very confident” LEEDCo. will be able to work with Ohio DNR to develop an avian and bat impact mitigation plan as outlined in the OPSB staff report.