By Justin Nobel

Icebreaker Wind, a promising Lake Erie wind energy project — which would be the first freshwater wind farm in North America and would offer the Buckeye State the opportunity to become a national leader in this nascent industry — is getting serious resistance from lawmakers and activists alike.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to energy, Ohio lawmakers have put the blinders on, and if your middle name isn’t ‘natural gas,’ they aren’t interested,” says Lorry Wagner, the president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo), the non-profit, public-private partnership leading the effort to build six wind turbines on Lake Erie, roughly eight miles from the Cleveland shore.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to energy, Ohio lawmakers have put the blinders on, and if your middle name isn’t ‘natural gas,’ they aren’t interested.”

“Ohio has the wind,” says Wagner. “We have a high demand for power right at the lake and close to the wind, we have the manufacturing capability, and we have the workers, but we don’t yet have a statewide policy.”

Dave Simons, co-chair of the Energy Committee at Ohio Chapter Sierra Club, believes that influential state legislators have been captured by the Oil & Gas industry.

“Oil, gas, and coal are doing everything they can to wipe out the competition,” he says, pointing to a pair of 2014 bills guided by Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz, who is on the board of directors of the ultraconservative, anti-environmentalist, pro-fracking corporate bill mill ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). The 2014 bills effectively killed a 2008 bill advocating for the development of renewable energy in Ohio. “In those five or six years the Ohio legislature went from being moderately environmentally responsible to just trying to annihilate everything about the environment,” says Simons.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Rob Portman and other Ohio leaders are pushing for an Appalachian Ethane Storage Hub, which would establish a series of massive chemical plants near the Ohio River that would enable the natural gas liquids extracted from the region’s shale deposits to be cooked into plastics and petrochemicals.

The Ohio Power Siting Board, which regulates the siting of solar and wind farms, is also standing in the way. The board, largely comprised of Kasich appointees, has paused the approval process for Icebreaker Wind. Permits from other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers, hinge on the Siting Board permit.

“Ohio needs to figure out,” says Wagner, “if they want to watch as this industry takes off and other states benefit, or if they want to be a leader.”

Environmental concerns aside, proponents of a Lake Erie wind farm see myriad benefits for the state of Ohio. Upon completion, they argue, Icebreaker Wind’s six turbines could power 8,000 homes along Ohio’s north shore. Eventually, the project could expand to power the farmlands of southern Ohio, or even apartments and homes in places like New York City and Philadelphia. According to Wagner, in addition to providing clean energy, the project could provide Northeast Ohio with 8,000 good-paying jobs.

“Ohio needs to figure out if they want to watch as this industry takes off and other states benefit, or if they want to be a leader.”

Liz Burdock, executive director of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, an organization dedicated to building the U.S. offshore wind supply chain, sees even greater potential for job creation, citing the 100,000 people in Europe currently working in the offshore wind industry. In America, contends Burdock, if Ohio doesn’t catch up, the state will be left behind, pointing to the Block Island operation off the coast of Rhode Island that’s already up and running, and a report released in March citing a dozen Atlantic Coast projects that are expected to be completed over the next decade.

“Right now,” says Burdock, “offshore wind in the US is exploding.”

But state leaders aren’t the only obstacles for Icebreaker Wind. In addition to its lobbying of Ohio pols, the fracking industry has made some Ohioans wary of any corporation coming into their communities with a claim of cheap energy and good jobs. Sure, wind does not threaten earthquakes and contaminate water the way fracking does, but the Icebreaker Wind proposal still favors corporate interests over community and environmental interests, according to Tish O’Dell, an Ohio organizer who works for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

O’Dell, whose organization helps Ohio communities fend off unwanted industrial projects by assisting them in drafting legislation, says that when you read the Icebreaker Wind proposal, “if you put ‘oil and gas’ in place of ‘Icebreaker Wind’ you would think they are talking about an oil and gas project.”

O’Dell is skeptical of the size of the proposed operation, the number of jobs promised, and the claims of low environmental impact. Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory — located near the western edge of Lake Erie — is also wary of Icebreaker Wind turning into a large-scale project, and points out that the open waters of Lake Erie represent an internationally recognized Important Bird Area. Her concerns are many. Twice a year, raptors migrate through the proposed site of the wind farm, and songbirds migrate across the lake at night. Plus, an unknown number of bats use the air space near the lakeshore. It is unknown just how many birds and bats would be killed by the turbines, or how much habitat the turbines would displace. According to Kaufman, “We should proceed only with the most rigorous science,” but she explains that given Lake Erie’s significance to birds, it is not a place her organization would ever endorse for wind turbines.

“I don’t really have tolerance for urban people scolding Appalachia for fracking or coal yet don’t want to push hard for wind or solar in their own communities.”

Such pushback has caused a split in the anti-fracking community. “I don’t really have tolerance for urban people scolding Appalachia for fracking or coal yet don’t want to push hard for wind or solar in their own communities,” says Ted Auch, a resident of Cleveland and Great Lakes program coordinator with FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public on the environmental risks of oil and gas development. Auch believes this protectionism is part of the urban-rural divide that has led to increasingly caustic US politics. “We have spent how many hundreds and hundreds of years in this country extracting resources from rural areas to fuel urban growth?” asks Auch. “There is no free lunch, and in no way can urban communities go in and force their belief systems on these rural areas but never take on any of the equities or sweat and labor involved with generating energy. How do you expect the lights to come on — magic?”

Auch explains that he too wants to move toward some small-scale community energy, but we’re simply not there yet, and to get there we need large-scale energy projects. “We can get energy by blowing up mountains, we can get energy by fracking the countryside, or we can get energy by harnessing wind that keeps passing through Lake Erie and other high wind areas,” he says.

There are also those within the Audubon Society who see greater risk to birds and their habitats if alternative energy sources are not aggressively pursued. “In September 2014 Audubon released a climate report that showed if we don’t reduce our emissions as fast as possible there would be a severe impact on more than 300 species of birds,” says Garry George, Renewable Energy Director for Audubon California. “That was a red flag to Audubon that we need to reduce our emissions as fast as possible. One of the big ways to do that is to transform the energy sector, and that is why we are intent on developing wind and solar and geothermal as fast as possible.”

George also notes that with wind and solar — unlike with fossil fuels — the environmental community has a wonderful opportunity to actually work closely with regulators and developers to ensure projects are done responsibly. George points to Altamont Pass, in Northern California, where some of the country’s first wind turbines were erected in the early 1980s. Golden eagles and burrowing owls, among other birds, “were really getting hammered,” says George. But in 2007, Audubon sued the developers and the county in which the wind farms were located, and the suit was settled in 2011. The developers designated funds to study the effects the turbines had on raptors, and specific turbines found to be responsible for killing the most birds were removed, while others were replaced. The result: bird mortality was greatly reduced. “It was a big lesson for everybody,” says George. “And in my opinion, the industry has really grown up — we can have wind and birds.”

Several scientists who are studying the impact of offshore wind farms on bird habitats have determined that there is indeed room for the industry to flourish in a way that also keeps birds safe. Pam Loring, a biologist within the Division of Migratory Birds at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says Block Island, the nation’s only current offshore wind farm, is “an example of how wind energy and wildlife conservation goals can coexist.” Loring has been studying bird movement along the Atlantic Coast for the past five years, and this year will be expanding her study to include additional bird tracking equipment installed on a turbine at the Block Island wind farm, in partnership with Deepwater Wind and the University of Rhode Island.

The project involves putting miniature radio-transmitters on terns and plovers that will enable researchers to determine whether the birds come close to the turbines on their yearly migrations south from New England, a journey the birds make at night. Wildlife ecologist Peter Paton, who’s working on the project, believes that as long as developers properly site projects in low impact areas not relied upon by species of concern, then offshore wind turbines and birds can coexist. “I have yet to see much offshore research showing collision risk is a major concern for these offshore turbines,” says Paton, referring to research that up until recently has primarily been done in Europe. Though, he adds, “there is still some indication that displacement, particularly for these larger arrays, can be an issue.”

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, some folks are getting restless.

“Fracking is exploding across Pennsylvania and Ohio but they are bringing in a bunch of people from Texas and Oklahoma to do most of the work. That means when they leave, there is no legacy knowledge for local residents.”

Robert Zadkovich, vice president of business development for Great Lakes Towing, presently the largest US-flagged tugboat fleet on the Great Lakes, explains the current nature of their business. Among other recent changes, numerous steel mills have shut down across the Great Lakes, which means less materials and product is being shipped on the lakes, which means less need for tugs. The company handles ships conveying other items too, such as grain, but a new industry is sorely needed. “Fracking is exploding across Pennsylvania and Ohio but they are bringing in a bunch of people from Texas and Oklahoma to do most of the work,” says Zadkovich. “That means when they leave, there is no legacy knowledge for local residents.”

Wind could be different, it could lead to a lasting Great Lakes industry that is continuously updating itself as technologies improve. There would be jobs in shipping and transport, jobs in manufacturing and fabrication, jobs in maintenance and repair, jobs in environmental monitoring and analysis. Plus, unlike fracking, says Zadkovich, “You don’t have depletion in the wind. That means these really are long-term jobs.”

According to Joe Starck, the president of Great Lakes Towing, “The key here is that we have the opportunity to build a new industry, and be a center for excellence in the region. We missed the opportunity to be first, because the first offshore wind farm went to Rhode Island. And to be the first means you get to learn first, you are the first to the market, and the market isn’t just Cleveland and Lake Erie, the market is the world. Now we have the opportunity to be second, and the first freshwater wind farm, and that is still good, but time is of the essence.”



Banner photo: What a wind farm in the middle of Lake Erie would look like. Courtesy of LEEDco.

Justin Nobel has written for such publications as Rolling StoneOxford AmericanNational Geographic, and Follow him on Twitter @justinnobel

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