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Lake Erie Wind Project: Do Benefits Outweigh Risks?

Six wind turbines would be installed eight miles off the coast of Cleveland if the Icebreaker project gets approval. (Rob Faulkner/Flickr)
Six wind turbines would be installed eight miles off the coast of Cleveland if the Icebreaker project gets approval. (Rob Faulkner/Flickr)
February 11, 2019

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The first freshwater wind-energy installation in North America could be coming to Ohio. While agreeing that a move to cleaner sources of energy is important, opponents say there's not enough evidence that the benefits of the project outweigh the risks.

Final approval could come soon for Icebreaker, a six-turbine wind installation in Lake Erie, eight miles off Cleveland's shoreline. Lake Erie Foundation board member John Lipaj noted it's actually a pilot project for a massive, 1,500 wind turbine installation throughout the lake. The developer has said each turbine holds about 400 gallons of industrial lubricants, and Lipaj said that’s just not worth the risk.

"Lake Erie, which is the source of drinking water for 11 million people, isn't the place to be building an industrial wind facility,” Lipaj said. “Build the wind turbines onshore; build them where farmers need that extra income. It just makes so much more sense and it's better for the lake."

Supporters say the project will create jobs and renewable energy, and note that no significant environmental impacts were found in the Environmental Assessment. Lipaj countered that many studies on which those conclusions are based, were provided by the developer’s own consultants. He believes that a more in-depth study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement should be required.

The Ohio Power Siting Board could decide on the project at a hearing February 21.

Among sticking points in the months-long negotiations between the board and the developers were measures to protect and monitor migrating birds and bats. Research director with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Mark Shieldcastle, explained that more than 1 million birds use the area for migration and foraging habitat every year.

"The central basin of Lake Erie has been designated as a globally important bird area because of the concentrations of some certain species,” Shieldcastle said. “So it's extremely important to birds and it's not a place where you start putting up obstructions without good knowledge as to what that risk is."

There are also concerns that the 480-foot-high turbines could ruin the aesthetics of lake communities, and potentially impact tourism dollars. Elected officials and labor unions support the project based on the developer’s claim that 500 local jobs will be created. However, Lipaj notes the developer’s own studies show that Icebreaker would only lead to nine permanent jobs. He said there's a misconception about who will truly benefit.

"This is really about a Norwegian company reaping U.S. taxpayer subsidies,” he said. “It's not just $55 million in Department of Energy subsidies, but there are also production tax credits and investment tax credits."

Supporters say Icebreaker is bringing positive attention to the region, and could make Northern Ohio a leader in the booming offshore wind-energy sector. But Lipaj points out that cities along the Atlantic Seaboard where offshore wind makes sense, already have the edge in becoming the manufacturing hubs.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH