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Update: 9/18/20: Ohio regulators surprised developers of a wind farm in Lake Erie and reversed a previous decision, assisting the project to move forward. The Ohio Power Siting Board voted unanimously Thursday on an amendment to lift the requirement for nighttime shutdowns of the turbines. Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) President Dave Karpinski, which is developing the project, is quoted as saying he was “very surprised,” and “very happy.” He had called the nighttime shutdown requirement a “poison pill,” that would make the project unfinanceable. Some opponents of project are concerned that it will harm migratory birds and bats. The revised ruling still needs to be officially drafted, and will be up for a vote of the OPSB.

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When Ohio recently approved construction of a wind farm in Lake Erie, the first ever freshwater offshore wind project in North America, the developers were shocked.

The approval by the Ohio Power Siting Board included conditions that the developer, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo), says will essentially kill the project. The turbines must be shut down at night for eight months of the year, from March to October, to protect birds and bats.

LISTEN: Julie Grant discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

LEEDCo, a public-private, non-profit partnership, has pushed for years to build an offshore wind project, called Icebreaker Wind, in Lake Erie, about eight miles from downtown Cleveland. 

The project proposes to build six wind turbines, producing more than 20 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 7,000 homes. According to the company, it would create 500 jobs, and more than $250 million in local economic development. 

Demonstration Project

Icebreaker is billed as a demonstration project, and is thus named because it would show whether wind turbines can withstand the force of ice sheets that form on the Great Lakes in winter. LEEDCo hopes to use this project, in the works since 2012, as a jumping off point to build a larger offshore wind energy industry in the Great Lakes. 

There are more than 100 offshore wind farms in Europe, but there’s only one in the U.S., off the coast of Rhode Island. Among renewable energy sources, wind produced the most energy in 2019, and that came almost entirely from land-based wind turbines. But offshore wind energy is expected to ramp up within the next decade. 

Ohio “Approves” Icebreaker

The Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), which certifies significant new utility projects, like electric generating plants, gas pipelines, and wind farms, recently announced that it approved the Icebreaker project, under the condition that LEEDCo turn off or “feather” the turbines at night from March 1 to November 1, and conduct radar studies of birds and bats. Millions of birds migrate twice a year at night over Lake Erie.

Based on the results, LEEDco must come up with a plan to mitigate the impacts. Once that is done, the company could seek approval to run the turbines at night.

But LEEDCo President Dave Karpinski doesn’t see this as an approval. He calls the state decision a project killer, a poison pill, and says it makes the offshore wind project unable to be financed.

According to Karpinski, LEEDCo has already provided huge amounts of data and analysis of this issue. It has gotten all other required approvals from state and federal authorities to move forward, including an Environmental Assessment by the US Department of Energy, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. 

“Their environmental assessment found that there were no significant impacts,” Karpinski said. “The Army Corps has issued its permits for doing work in the water. The Ohio EPA has issued its approval permit.”

Also, LEEDCo already negotiated this specific issue with technical staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board. According to Energy News Network, the OPSB staff suggested nightly shutdowns to protect bats and birds in 2018, even though LEEDCo had already reached agreement with environmental groups. LEEDCo negotiated with OPSB staff and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for months. They reached a compromise last May that dropped the requirement. 

So, Karpinski says, he was shocked when the board included it in the final vote.

“If you can do all that work and reach these agreements…all these objective people that are paid to do this, and aren’t biased by interests on either side made that decision, and it was reversed and that’s a problem,” he said.

The agency defends its authority to make this decision. Matt Butler, spokesperson representing the OPSB said in an email, “The Board is not bound by settlement agreements and may accept, reject, or modify settlement agreements based on the case record.”

Birding Groups Not Satisfied

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory, in northern Ohio, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy (ABC), filed a federal lawsuit in December against the Department of Energy and other agencies. They want a more thorough environmental assessment, and are challenging the government funding for Icebreaker Wind, which has been more than $50 million

ABC is pleased that Ohio regulators put nighttime limitations on the turbines in their decision. “We thought that was appropriate,” said Steve Holmer, the group’s vice president of policy. “There still has not been adequate monitoring or proven mitigation and so it makes sense to take a cautionary approach here.” 

“This has been already identified as a globally significant bird area,” he continued. “The issue is whether we’re going to fully, adequately consider wildlife when we make these decisions and in our view, they simply haven’t. We think that this is just not an appropriate location for wind development.”

Other environmental groups, including Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council, support Icebreaker Wind, saying that the developer has shown it will monitor and protect birds and bats, while providing offshore wind power that can offset carbon emissions from fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and are also detrimental to birds.

Next Steps for Icebreaker

Under the OPSB board decision, the offshore wind project is economically un-workable, according to Karpinski. He’s looking into what happened. He wants to know why the Ohio board did not follow the agreement signed by its own staff. Karpinski also points out that it’s been reported that Murray Energy, a coal company, paid nearly $1 million to a law firm that assisted two residents who opposed the project. 

LEEDCo has 30 days to apply to the board for a rehearing, and can then appeal the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court if it chooses.