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Future Of Lake Erie Wind Farm Remains Up In The Air

Garth Clark
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Lake Erie is an abundant natural resource with 10,000 square miles of water, wind and wildlife. For more than a decade, a group in Cleveland has been working to harness Lake Erie’s wind energy with a proposed six-turbine windfarm called Icebreaker.

But the project ran afoul of regulators earlier this year, and a provision to save migrating birds has left the future of Icebreaker up in the air.

Icebreaker was the brain-child of local economic development groups and civic leaders more than a decade ago. Their dream was to make Cleveland a hub for clean energy.

The effort came close to collapse in May, when the Ohio Power Siting Board, a little-known group of regulators with enormous power over renewable energy projects, inserted a poison-pill into Icebreaker’s permit.

The board required that the turbines stop spinning at night for eight months out of the year to avoid collisions with migrating birds, a process ironically called "feathering." Backers say it makes the project financially unfeasible.

Committee member and state Rep. Jeff Crossman from Cleveland asked board chair Sam Randazzo several times how the feathering provision got added to the agreement. Randazzo’s ultimate answer was couched in legalese.

“The responsibility for collecting evidence and preparing a proposed decision resides with the attorney examiners, otherwise known as administrative law judges,” he said.

Crossman, himself a lawyer, interpreted it: “He tried to basically say that his staff at the PUCO crafted the decision, but the staff works for him."

Dave Karpinski, president of LEEDCo, the group building Icebreaker, says he felt betrayed by the feathering insertion because he had already reached a deal with regulators on reducing bird collisions.

“I think it sends a chilling signal to others that might follow us for any kind of project," he said.

Karpinski said that renewable energy developers could spend years and millions of dollars on a project, "reach an agreement, only to have it overturned without any explanation.”

Crossman says it’s possible that the board voting in May didn’t realize the poison-pill provision had been inserted into the Icebreaker agreement.

“I think everybody at the time thought that we were getting the order in the form that had been agreed to by several parties, and in fact what we got was something different,” he said.

Birds And Blades

In a surprise turnaround at its meeting this month, the siting board voted to remove the feathering provision for Icebreaker.

But Crossman says the process for approving energy projects, especially in the wake of the nuclear bailout scandal rocking Ohio, warrants scrutiny.

“We as a state need honest and transparent discussions about policy rather than these backroom shenanigans that go on,” Crossman said.

Randazzo declined further comment since it’s a pending case.

Still, the question of what regulators will require to minimize bird collisions hangs over Icebreaker.

One of the main opponents is the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor. Research director Mark Shieldcastle says the lake is a globally important migratory flyway.

“Huge numbers, in the millions, migrate across Lake Erie," Shieldcastle said.

He says song birds especially, flying over the lake at night, could smack into spinning turbine blades.

“The potential of risk is great,” Shieldcastle said.

He’s also worried about water birds like loons, grebes and the red-breasted merganser.

Birds in fact are under assault across the U.S. Three billion birds have perished over the past 50 years from habitat loss, global warming, house cats, building collisions and, yes, wind turbines.

As part of the original deal, LEEDco is required to measure bird populations at the site of the wind farm using radar for eight months before construction begins. They’re also required to develop technologyto measure bird collisions.

More than 21 dead birds in 24 hours could trigger a shutdown or even the feathering provision. Karpinski says these and other stipulations make Icebreaker the most regulated wind project ever in Ohio.

“Put it another way: Six turbines on land wouldn’t have gotten this kind of scrutiny by any means,” he said.

All sides recognize that if this demonstration project proves safe for wildlife, and makes money, it could pave the way for dozens more wind turbines in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.