Ohio axes ‘poison pill’ for Lake Erie project

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, September 20, 2020

The prospects for the nation’s first freshwater offshore wind farm got a lift yesterday after Ohio regulators struck down a permitting requirement that might have slammed the brakes on development.

The Ohio Power Siting Board approved the 20.7-megawatt Icebreaker wind farm in Lake Erie on May 21. But the board required turbines be “feathered,” or idled, at nighttime for eight months of the year to protect birds and bats — terms that made the project economically unviable, according to the developer, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo).

Facing political pressure from dozens of northeastern Ohio elected officials, the board reversed course yesterday and eliminated the condition.

Dave Karpinski, president of LEEDCo, a Cleveland-based public-private partnership that’s developing the project with partner and investor Fred. Olsen Renewables of Norway, said the change enables work on the project to move forward.

“We were really pleased that the poison pill was taken out,” Karpinski said in an interview with E&E News after the siting board meeting.

LEEDCo and other Icebreaker supporters argued the requirement had been improperly adopted at the last minute despite a settlement between LEEDCo and technical staff from the siting board and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Icebreaker must still satisfy more than 30 conditions included in the May order, including the development of a radar monitoring program for birds and bats. Developers must also return to the board for approval of an avian and bat impact mitigation plan before beginning construction, a condition not required of land-based wind projects.

The 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.

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.

As the project name suggests, Icebreaker is a demonstration project aimed at proving the viability of offshore wind in the Great Lakes, including the regulatory approval process.

Yesterday’s board decision deviated from a proposed order circulated among board members earlier this month that recommended rejecting the developer’s rehearing request. The proposed order, including a sharply worded concurring opinion by board Chairman Sam Randazzo, was published Tuesday by Cleveland.com.

Randazzo, who also serves as Ohio’s chief utility regulator and has been a frequent critic of wind energy, criticized the leak of the “confidential” proposed order and challenged the idea that removing the feathering condition provided the project more “regulatory certainty.”

He also noted the Icebreaker project still faces opposition and the project’s approval could be challenged in court.

“The final dust may not settle on this question until the Ohio Supreme Court weighs in,” Randazzo said during yesterday’s meeting.

The core issue around the board’s siting approval has been the wind farm’s impact on birds and bats in what has been designated a globally significant “Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.”

Some conservation groups, which aren’t formal parties to the case before the board, oppose the project.

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.

Conservation groups including the American Bird Conservancy and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory have also opposed the project and filed a lawsuit against the federal government to block the project. The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is still pending.

Approval from Ohio’s Power Siting Board is among eight major permits from more than a dozen state and federal agencies that LEEDCo must secure before construction.

The timeline for the project, which was initially supposed to be complete in 2017, remains unclear.

Karpinski declined to provide a new estimate of when Icebreaker could begin generating electricity, noting that the developer spent all summer just fighting to keep it alive.

“We’ve been in a fight for the life of the project since May,” he said. “Now it’s time to regroup. We have a lot of work to do.”