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Ohio Supreme Court ruling could mean the end of Lake Erie's Icebreaker wind farm project

A Wind Turbine over water
Slowed by lawsuits, regulatory roadblocks, and an unfriendly legislature, offshore wind turbines in Lake Erie remain an elusive dream more than a decade after the Icebreaker wind farm was proposed.

The Ohio Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision soon on whether the proposed Icebreaker wind farm in Lake Erie can go forward.

The project is being challenged by two lakeshore residents who believe the giant blades pose too great a risk to migrating birds.

Back in 2011 WKSU joined a crew of engineers heading out onto Lake Erie with a dream.

We docked at the century-old water intake crib five miles offshore to check the array of wind gauges.

Blowing across fifty miles of lake, the unobstructed breeze from the north was what Icebreaker's planners called 'clean wind', an untapped energy resource.

LEEDCo, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., had hoped the six-turbine pilot project would be the first offshore wind farm in American waters.

Now, bogged down by lawsuits, slowed by regulators, and starved for state support Icebreaker is nearly sunk.

LEEDCo last year lost its last full-time employee, prompting board member and Port of Cleveland CEO Will Friedman to step up to keep the project afloat.

“It's still alive," he said, "still working on the same objective, which is to bring Icebreaker to fruition.”

But Friedman says the headwinds are formidable.

“There’s just not much appetite for renewable projects in Ohio.”

Ohio's unfriendly renewable skies

A decade ago, with its manufacturing might and renewable energy incentives, Ohio was poised to be a leader in wind development.

That has changed.

GOP lawmakers have since passed prohibitive restrictions on land-based wind farms, removed the renewable mandates, and given leaders at the county level the power to veto renewable projects.

That’s on top of the $60 million corruption scandal in the statehouse which includes former chief regulator, Sam Randazzo, who’s under investigation for receiving millions in bribes from a coal and nuclear utility.

Surprisingly, all of this isn’t what’s brought Icebreaker to a standstill.

It’s two ordinary citizens who love the lake.

The risk to birds and bats

“I’m a lifelong Clevelander, grew up in Euclid, lived in Cleveland Heights and have lived in Bratenahl now for 25 years,” said Susan Dempsey, one of two plaintiffs challenging Icebreaker.

Dempsey and Bratenahl neighbor Robert Maloney successfully challenged Icebreaker all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that the state erred in granting permits to build the turbines without fully documenting how they might impact migrating birds and bats.

“Our position is that we should be doing whatever we can to protect those waters and the diverse environmental ecosystem that makes up the Great Lakes.”

Dempsey is upfront that early in their fight an Ohio coal baron picked up the legal tab.

“We were actually fortunate to have received assistance, but we received absolutely no direction from Murray Energy or Robert Murray,” she said.

Robert Murray died in 2020, and Dempsey says they’ve had no further assistance.

In fact, she supports curbing fossil fuels, but she added, “I believe that we will find a better way to do this than industrializing Lake Erie.”

Delay is a partial win

Attorney Jon Secrest who defended Icebreaker in December’s hearing before the high court disputes her claim the turbines will harm birds.

Jonathan Secrest testifying in front of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohio Channel
Icebreaker's attorney Jonathan Secrest argued that safeguards to limit collisions with migratory birds and bats are part of the project's permit.

He says wildlife experts, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and state agencies all believe the impact will be minimal.

But when it comes to opposing renewables in Ohio, its easy to get your day in court.

“It’s a very liberal standard that allows pretty much anyone affected by the project or potentially affected to intervene in the action,” said Secrest.

That’s in stark contrast to Ohio law which prevents citizens, local governments or groups from mounting any legal challenges to fracking, or other oil and gas development.

Secrest says regardless of the high court's ruling, the Bratenahl pair’s five year legal battle achieved it’s goal.

“Delay is a partial win for them,” said Secrest.

New York's wind may win

The delays have put a deep freeze on Icebreaker.

The Port Authority’s Will Friedman says he is working to keep Norwegian partner Fred. Olsen Renewables engaged eight years after they signed-on to build and operate the turbines.

“They still have an interest," he said, "so they’re still there.”

He’s also gotten an extension from the U.S. Department of Energy to use the remaining $37 million in grant funding towards the $175 million price tag.

Friedman says the irony is that even if Icebreaker is never built, the Great Lakes will likely see wind turbines.

He says New Yorkthis summer will start leasing submerged land in Lake Erie to wind developers with the full weight of that state's support behind them.