An Offshore Wind Farm on Lake Erie Moves Closer to Reality, but Will It Ever Be Built?

Icebreaker would be the first freshwater wind farm in North America. But after more than a decade, it is still jumping hurdles and polarizing environmental groups.

Oct 26, 2020
A boat passes one of the wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm on Oct. 14, 2016 off the shore of Rhode Island. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

A boat passes one of wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the Rhode Island Coast on Oct. 14, 2016. Block Island was the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., but the Icebreaker Wind project, on Lake Erie, could be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

On the rare clear day, the wind farm's turbines would stand offshore, resembling six matchsticks on the horizon.

If it is finally built off the coast of Cleveland, eight miles out in the shallow waters of Lake Erie, Icebreaker Wind would be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. But the project, which has polarized Ohio's environmental groups for more than a decade, is now inching toward unprecedented success and away from total defeat.

The name of the project—Icebreaker—refers to the layer of ice that freshwater turbines, unlike offshore turbines built in saltwater, must withstand, and also is a nod to a new kind of wind power. Advocates say it could demonstrate the potential of the fledgling offshore wind industry, becoming a beacon for other Midwestern cities struggling to transition away from fossil fuels. Opponents argue that the technology is too new, the project costs too high and the studies about its impacts dangerously incomplete. And, to further complicate the issue, a coal company quietly poured money into other opponents' fights against the project.

The debate revolves not around Icebreaker's six turbines but around the industry its developer hopes to spark: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of turbines in Lake Erie and a city, Cleveland, powered entirely by offshore wind. To many, Icebreaker is a reckoning over the tradeoffs inherent in a world run on renewables. It is a symbolic tug-of-war between birders and turbine advocates, between fossil fuel money and clean energy activists, between lakefront homeowners clinging to unobstructed views and others who view the demonstration wind farm as a critical step forward in the fight against climate change.

Icebreaker has won approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), the final state entity that must greenlight construction, moving it a step closer to reality. But the wind farm must have additional safety measures approved before its six turbines, and a possible future wind industry for Lake Erie, can be built. The board's approval of Icebreaker—a pilot project that was proposed by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) and has been under development for more than a decade—does not authorize future projects, or open a pipeline for unbounded turbine construction. 

"If there is another project later, it has to come with its own application, its own impact statements, its own assessments," said LEEDCo president Dave Karpinski. "And we'll go through this whole process all over again."

The power siting board approved Icebreaker in May, but with a catch. Buried in the 110-page decision was a requirement that all six turbines be "feathered," or stopped overnight, for eight months of the year, from March 1 to Nov. 1. The feathering would continue until LEEDCo can provide conclusive evidence that the turbines pose a low risk to migrating birds and bats.

Icebreaker Wind Farm

The feathering requirement came as a surprise to LEEDCo. Although it was originally introduced months earlier in the OPSB Staff Report, an analysis of the Icebreaker proposal, feathering was ultimately removed after negotiations with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that it was unnecessarily cautious and too costly for LEEDCo to execute. The discussions were intended to maximize the project's safety, resulting in an impact mitigation plan, threatened species protection measures and radar monitoring requirements.

After feathering reappeared in the final OPSB decision, both LEEDCo and project opponents petitioned the OPSB to reconsider the ruling. And in mid-September, the power siting board voted to remove the feathering requirement from its ruling. While the decision effectively eliminated the last major hurdle for the project, it still doesn't guarantee Icebreaker's success. LEEDCo's wildlife impact monitoring plan must be approved by the OPSB—a process with no set timeline—before construction can begin.

A Vision of Thousands of Turbines

The Icebreaker Wind project began nearly two decades ago as one man's vision for a Cleveland of the future.

Ronn Richard arrived in the city in 2003 as the new president of the Cleveland Foundation, a public trust that gives more than $100 million in community grants every year. The foundation sought an innovative leader who could breathe life into economically-struggling Cleveland, and it chose Richard for his lengthy and unusual career: He was a U.S. diplomat in Japan, an executive at Panasonic North America and then the chief operating officer of the CIA's venture capital fund.

Like most people, Richard saw a Cleveland that had declined along with the steel industry, its aging infrastructure and rusting smokestacks left behind by the digital revolution. But unlike most, he also saw potential there, especially in the medical technology, water and energy sectors. His Cleveland Foundation soon took a more active role in the city's economic recovery, funding projects designed to restore jobs and attract new industries. Icebreaker was one of them.

In 2005, a local citizens' committee caught onto Richard's idea of a freshwater wind pilot project. In 2006, the same year the Cleveland Foundation helped finance the installation of a single onshore wind turbine at Cleveland's Great Lakes Science Center, a science museum, the foundation helped to form a task force of local government officials, attorneys and business people to examine the potential for offshore wind development in Lake Erie.

The Foundation envisioned the city becoming a pioneer in the clean energy industry by building thousands of offshore turbines, a brand-new technology at the time. With the advancements in wind technology since 2006, far fewer turbines would be required today to generate the same amount of energy.

The task force knew that before anyone could build an industry in the lake, they would have to prove that offshore wind turbines were both viable—technologically and economically—and safe. They drew inspiration from similar offshore wind projects in Scandinavia, some of which were built as early as the 1990s, and concluded that despite the "financial, technical, legal, regulatory, and environment assessment obstacles" posed by offshore wind, siting between four and 10 turbines outside Cleveland would be "difficult, but possible, and very much worth the risk," according to a report published in early 2007.

The project that became Icebreaker was one of a number of proposals for small offshore wind farms that cropped up throughout the Great Lakes Region around the same time, scattered along the lakes' American and Canadian shores, all vying to become the continent's first freshwater wind farm. Most never made it past early planning stages. Icebreaker is the last project standing.

Thirteen years after Icebreaker was officially proposed, it may become the first wind farm in the Great Lakes, but it will no longer be the nation's first offshore wind farm. Rhode Island's Block Island Wind Farm claimed that title in 2016, becoming the first of two grid-connected offshore wind farms in the United States (the other is Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind).

View of wind turbines, located three miles off the bluffs of Block Island, Rhode Island on Sept. 9, 2017. Credit: Mark Harrington/Newsday RM via Getty Images

View of wind turbines, located three miles off the bluffs of Block Island, Rhode Island on Sept. 9, 2017. Credit: Mark Harrington/Newsday RM via Getty Images

The task force behind Icebreaker believed that starting with a small-scale demonstration project could prove the efficacy of freshwater offshore wind "without being any significant, real risk to the environment," said former task force member Larry Viterna, then a wind turbine researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Viterna is now president of Nautica Windpower, an Ohio-based developer of floating offshore turbines.

Floating technology is among the newest developments in the offshore wind sector. A handful of single-turbine pilots—and two pre-commercial, multi-turbine wind farms—are already in operation around the world, with the University of Maine's 12 MW Aqua Ventus project poised to become the country's first floating offshore wind plant next year.

While commercial competitiveness for floating turbines is probably many years away, it may be the key to a true offshore wind industry. Once such turbines do become viable, floating wind farms can be erected in deeper water, farther from shore, where they will be less likely to have an impact on wildlife, views, recreation and commercial uses like fishing or tourism.

Icebreaker represents an in-between stage for offshore wind. Its turbines will be anchored to the lakebed with foundations that function like giant suction cups, stabilizing the turbines without the disruption of pile-driving. But of the five Great Lakes, only Lake Erie is shallow enough to feasibly house a meaningful number of such turbines using existing fixed-bottom turbine technology. If built, the 20.7-megawatt wind farm will be more of a scientific resource than a wind power plant, enabling researchers to collect data on wildlife impacts—particularly bird and bat collisions—for years before floating turbines enter the market.

Historically, monitoring of collisions between birds and turbine blades has been subject to human error and the effects of scavenging animals. For wind farms on land, people, sometimes with the help of dogs, traverse the ground beneath turbines and count the bird and bat carcasses they find there. For offshore wind farms, there's no similarly low-tech way to count—or predict—animal fatalities. And it's impossible to know the true impact of a wind farm, offshore or otherwise, until after it is built.

"Presence (of birds and bats) does not necessarily equal risk," said Bethany Straw, former researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "So when you're trying to evaluate what the prospective risk might be, there's a lot of factors that you have to take into account. Some of them are measurable and some of them are not. Some of them are observable and some of them are not. There is a kind of burgeoning area of study on how we can better evaluate and estimate risk."

Though LEEDCo used a turbine placement favorability analysis by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to select a final site for Icebreaker, it will be responsible for evaluating—and, if necessary, mitigating—the effects of the turbines on wildlife after they are built. It plans to conduct pre- and post-construction radar monitoring studies to track birds in the area, and install strike detection technology on the turbines themselves to identify collisions with the blades.

Why Offshore Wind is Such a Challenge

Land-based wind is inexpensive in places like Texas, which has strong winds and plenty of flat, open land well suited to turbines, said Walt Musial, offshore wind lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The same is true for much of the Great Plains and Midwest. But farther east, in Ohio and Michigan and throughout the Northeast, the wind tends to be weaker, and land is harder to come by.

"It would take a wind farm approximately half the size of Long Island to power Long Island," Musial said. "It just doesn't sound practical to think of a project that big in a densely populated area. So that's why offshore wind is being developed so rapidly on the East Coast, because the ocean is now accessible as an area to put turbines." The same logic extends to the Great Lakes region, where the limited space means that onshore wind farms cannot be built on a large enough scale to accommodate relatively weak land-based wind resources, he said. 

The Cleveland Foundation saw Lake Erie's open waters—home to some of the strongest winds in Ohio—as the solution to the city's energy issues. By 2009, the project had amassed substantial regional support but still lacked a developer. So the task force and other public and private entities, including the city of Cleveland, two counties and the Cleveland Foundation, together created LEEDCo, a nonprofit, to oversee the project.

LEEDCo anticipated some opposition as it progressed through the permitting process, but the backlash it faced from birding groups and fossil fuel interests exceeded its expectations.

The Ohio Environmental Council and the Sierra Club were among its strongest supporters, vouching for Icebreaker in front of the OPSB and arguing that the threat of climate change far exceeds the risk posed by Icebreaker's six turbines—a view backed by wind and wildlife experts.

Some species of migratory birds "aren't as impacted by wind turbines as other types of development, or other impacts in general," said Cris Hein, senior project leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's environmental portfolio. Birds flying into buildings, "cats, climate change, all have really large impacts on these birds."

Slowing Things Down

For Lake Erie Waterkeeper, a group working to preserve water quality in the Lake Erie watershed, and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, an organization focused on birding education, conservation and tourism, the feathering requirement unexpectedly imposed by the OPSB was a small victory. Its removal came as a disappointment to the two groups. 

"(Icebreaker is) an important milestone, and it should be done with due diligence and extreme caution," said Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper. Bihn said she is most concerned that the turbines—which will contain entirely biodegradable fluids, according to LEEDCo president Karpinski—could harm the drinking water or recreational value of the lake.

Black Swamp observatory's primary concern is the birds migrating across the lake. Don Bauman, Black Swamp's conservation committee chair and chair of its board of trustees, believes the studies that led LEEDCo to select the Icebreaker site did not account for changes in migration patterns across years and failed to acknowledge the dangers posed to birds during inclement weather, when even birds that ordinarily fly far above the turbines may fly lower, potentially within collision range, in response to the poor visibility.

Icebreaker would also be sited in the middle of a "Globally Important Bird Area," an unofficial designation given by the National Audubon Society to the area spanning much of Lake Erie's Western and Central Basins. Lake Erie accounts for two of the 720 such areas considered essential for bird migration in the United States. Because of the region's high bird traffic, Bauman believes that more extensive study, over a longer period of time, is needed before the project's risk can be evaluated more accurately. But he is especially concerned about the true number of turbines LEEDCo plans to build.

"You're talking about six turbines here as sort of a gateway to thousands more turbines in the same area of the lake," Bauman said. "So there's a lot at stake here. If it was only six turbines, we would certainly insist on the science being honest and complete, but we wouldn't be so terribly worried about it."

Black Swamp and the American Bird Conservancy, a fellow bird advocacy organization, are suing the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers over a $40 million grant awarded to Icebreaker in 2016. The grant aims to support Icebreaker's venture into a new source of clean energy, with the money contingent on LEEDCo continuing to meet permitting and construction deadlines set by the DoE.

"That grant was based on an environmental assessment which in our view was inadequate, both in depth and in rigor," Bauman said. "We thought that it needed to be done by, or at least informed by, an environmental impact statement, and so we chose to sue the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers for failing to live up to their responsibilities as they're described in the Clean Water Act and also the National Environmental Policy Act."

The National Environmental Policy Act mandates that a federal agency first prepare an environmental assessment, which determines whether a project or action—in this case, the construction and operation of Icebreaker's six turbines—will "significantly affect the quality of the human environment." A more comprehensive environmental impact statement is only required if the project is expected to have a significant impact.

Icebreaker was deemed low-risk, a determination supported by the Ohio Environmental Council and Sierra Club.

"This has just been very thoroughly vetted," said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy and lead energy counsel at the Ohio Environmental Council and Sierra Club.

Hypothetically speaking, "if this was a 1,500 turbine project and we had no data that had been collected, we may have a different perspective on this project," Leppla said. "But right now it's a six-turbine project, it's very low risk and we're hoping to see additional data collected as a result of this project, to make sure that any additional projects that go into Lake Erie will be well-informed and properly researched."

Fossil Fuels Fund the Fight

The local coal company formerly called Murray Energy, which has a long history of opposing renewable energy projects, has been open about its involvement in the Icebreaker case: it paid the legal fees of two residents of a condominium association in Bratenahl, Ohio, who opposed Icebreaker and participated in the OPSB case, by making payments to the law firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff for "services." 

"Murray Energy is pleased that its outside counsel... can assist the Bratenahl residents to prevent Icebreaker from steam-rolling this project through the Ohio Power Siting Board certification process without the public scrutiny and opposition that it deserves," a Murray spokesman wrote in an email to Cleveland.com in 2018. Further details about the nearly $1 million it paid to the law firm, which routinely contests clean energy development in Ohio, became public during Murray's bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year (Murray, now called American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc., emerged from bankruptcy in September).

The form Murray's involvement took in the case was a legal workaround for a clear conflict of interest, Karpinski said, adding that with the company's financial involvement in the Ohio energy sector as a potential direct competitor to Icebreaker, had it attempted to become a participant in the case itself, it almost certainly would have been rejected.

The Bratenahl residents had no apparent connections to the fossil fuel industry nor expertise about turbines. They primarily expressed concern about an industry of wind turbines, not just Icebreaker's six, being built in Lake Erie—their "backyard."

"It's called the Icebreaker because it's just the beginning," said W. Susan Dempsey, one of the condo residents who was an interested party in the case, during her deposition before the OPSB in 2018. "And that wasn't—I don't think anything should be put in a lake. I just don't think anything should go into Lake Erie, period. I was opposed to it when there were six. I was more opposed to it when there were a thousand."

The other resident of the condominium association, Robert Maloney, emphasized during his own deposition that the construction of turbines would spoil the "pristine" lake.

Cleveland residents enjoy a sunny afternoon in Lake Erie on July 29, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Angelo Merendino/Corbis via Getty Images

Cleveland residents enjoy a sunny afternoon in Lake Erie on July 29, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Angelo Merendino/Corbis via Getty Images

Neither condo resident responded to requests for comment.

The lawyer paid by Murray to represent the Bratenahl residents approached Black Swamp observatory early on about becoming intervenors in the case, but Black Swamp declined.

"We can readily admit that the end goal of our efforts and their efforts would be the same thing: that those six turbines wouldn't go up," Bauman said. "But to us that's not good enough. We have to be a little more pure of heart, if you want to call it that, and keep our alliances in line with our own mission."

Murray also paid Richard Brown, principal engineer at the science and engineering consulting firm Exponent, to develop a report on Icebreaker's economic feasibility. Brown testified that he considered the power purchase agreement between LEEDCo and Cleveland Public Power (CPP)—under which CPP will purchase the majority of the energy generated by Icebreaker—to be a violation of CPP's obligation as a public utility to keep electricity rates as low as possible. He views the arrangement with LEEDCo as a bad deal for ratepayers, he said.

"In this case, Cleveland Public Power was purchasing energy, wind power, at a rate that was much higher than they could purchase it otherwise," Brown said in an interview. "And this was, in my opinion, not being transparent to the ratepayers."

Though Brown's hourly fees were paid by Murray Energy, he never spoke with anyone from the company. "My opinion is going to be my opinion, regardless of who hires me," he said.

The precise costs associated with the energy generated by Icebreaker have not been made public, but they will be above market price, a reality LEEDCo has made clear throughout the planning process.

In a 2018 Q&A with Marine News, former LEEDCo president Lorry Wagner said, "As a small demo project in an industry still in its infancy in the U.S., our price is above the market price for electricity. It takes time, it takes scale, and it takes government support. As the industry grows I have no doubt we will be competitive. It's just going to take time to get there."

LEEDCo partnered with the Norweigan company Fred. Olsen Renewables to help fund the project. Once construction is complete, LEEDCo will transfer full ownership of Icebreaker to Fred. Olsen.

Responding to Brown's concerns, Karpinski pointed to other forms of energy production that initially had to be subsidized in order to become commercially competitive, including nuclear power and shale gas. He also called attention to a decision by Ohio legislators last year to approve a $1.3 million bailout of two nuclear power plants and two coal plants—raising ratepayers' costs and gutting Ohio's clean energy requirements in the process. That law has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, after the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives was arrested last summer in a $60 million bribery scheme tied to its passage.

The corruption "does cast a shadow over what happened, I think in our case," Karpinski said.

Leppla, from the Ohio Environmental Council and Sierra Club, sees the delays and unexpected requirements that Icebreaker has faced as part of a larger pattern of unfriendliness to renewables within the OPSB and the state of Ohio.

She expressed concern about a solar project near Cincinnati that the chairman of the Ohio Power Siting Board, Sam Randazzo, who has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, delayed for months over concerns about seemingly trivial details.

Leppla emphasized that the additional obstacles faced by renewable projects in Ohio can doom them, as many must meet tight construction deadlines in order to receive funding from certain sources.

"It's just unfortunate we continue to send a message to the business community, and businesses that are developing these innovative clean energy projects, that Ohio is not open for business," she said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the former position of Bethany Straw at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. She is a former researcher there. 

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