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Tilting at Windmills

Cleveland may win the race to build offshore turbines, but why have others stopped trying?


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LEEDCo has partnered with a developer of its own: Freshwater Wind, a collaboration between a Texas-based asset management and energy development firm, an international development company, and Great Lakes Wind Energy, which assembled a group of offshore wind experts to develop Lake Erie turbines.

So far, LEEDCo has secured land leases from the state for the nine-square-mile area where the first five turbines will go, some seven and a half miles off the shore of Lakewood. LEEDCo is also well into the testing and research needed to satisfy the 20 state and federal permits required for the project to proceed.

Meanwhile, LEEDCo has contracted with General Electric to supply Lake Erie's first turbines. Each one will rise 450 to 500 feet above the water line, with a blade span of 373 feet. A minimum of 1,800 feet will separate each turbine.

"We chose GE because it has the biggest footprint of supply-chain employees in Ohio," says Chris Wisseman, managing director of Freshwater Wind. Ohio, he points out, is second only to California in manufacturing and selling parts to the world's top turbine makers.

Parker Hannifin, Eaton, Owens Corning, and various smaller companies throughout Ohio currently supply parts and materials for turbine manufacturers. Wagner sees himself as a facilitator to connect even more Ohio companies that may make something turbine manufacturers need, in hopes that a GE or other turbine maker will open a major manufacturing facility here.

As for jobs, LEEDCo estimates that construction of the initial five-turbine wind farm will employ about 600, and 30 to 60 of those jobs will be retained long term. Expanding Ohio's offshore wind program could lead to 8,000 permanent jobs for the region by 2030, Wagner says.

"This is how it starts — it starts with five," says Sherri Lange, director of Toronto Wind Action, which opposes all wind energy projects. "It's not economical to do five. They aren't going to stop. They want to put up hundreds. It's a very dangerous precedent," she says.

Wagner readily admits that LEEDCo doesn't intend to stop at five. The plan is to plant as many as 1,250 turbines in Lake Erie by 2030. But he is undaunted by detractors' claims that the lake will be rendered unusable as a result. "It's unlikely that any more than 20 percent of the Lake would get developed in Ohio waters," he says.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has already issued a map as a guide for offshore wind developments; it blocks off major shipping lanes, protected habitats and fisheries, known bird sanctuaries and stopovers, as well as areas heavily used by recreational boaters.

But Lange believes none of the Great Lakes should be tampered with.

"They are a public trust. They represent 20 percent of the world's remaining freshwater reserves," she says. Furthermore, the environmental impact of installing wind farms in a fresh water lake is unknown, and it's bound to be more profound than that from an installation in open sea.

Lake Erie, it appears, may be North America's fresh water wind guinea pig. There is only one other fresh water wind farm in the world: a 10-turbine project in Sweden's Lake Vanern, which has been online for only a year. So far, very little environmental data has been produced from the project.

One concern is that installing the massive, 7,000-ton foundations needed for each turbine will stir up toxic sludge that currently is safely buried in Erie muck. Chemicals deposited in the lake decades ago by area industries could, if released, kill fish and other aquatic life, and affect drinking water, Lange says.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has turned up toxic chemicals buried in sediment at the mouths of rivers entering the Great Lakes, it has not tested sediment miles offshore, where turbines are likely to go.

But LEEDCo will. "We will be required to take a sediment sample at the location for every single turbine," Wagner says. "If there is something bad in one spot, the agencies are not going to let us put a turbine there."

Opponents also worry that rotor blades spinning at 150 miles per hour present a danger to anything that flies. Raptors, loons, and some other bird species cross Lake Erie flying under 500 feet and within the rotors' reach. But studies show that many birds fly around turbines, says Scott Petrie, executive director of Long Point Waterfowl, a Toronto-based wetlands and waterfowl research center.

"The turbines will kill more bats and butterflies than birds," he says, because neither avoids anything. The fate of bats is particularly macabre: They are attracted to dead insects on the rotor blades, and the drastic air-pressure change at the blade tips makes their lungs explode.

LEEDCo has already conducted mandatory avian radar studies, but the results have yet to be tabulated.

"There are going to be birds killed. That's just life," Wagner says. "If it turns out there are certain areas with a super-high density of birds or bats going from point A to point B, then you can be sure the regulators will say that's a corridor we aren't going into."

Petrie, however, fears the effects on migratory patterns from closing off multiple corridors. "There are so many thousands of turbines proposed, and there is no discussion between different states and provinces," he says.

There are also aesthetic objections and critics who say Lake Erie wind farms will damage tourism and water recreation — the "pincushion" effect.

"People come here to enjoy the beautiful sunsets over Lake Erie. What do wind farms do to the visual impact?" asks Thomas Marks, executive director of Great Lakes Wind Truth, an anti-wind group in New York.

New York's turbine developers will require pleasure boaters to steer clear of wind farms, which Marks says will seriously limit recreation and access to popular fishing spots.

Maybe those boaters can sail toward Ohio. The U.S. Coast Guard has no restrictions on boat access to turbine sites and, according to Wagner, LEEDCo has no plans to restrict access either. "We have some thoughts of putting tie-offs on the turbine foundations, so boats can tie off there rather than drop anchor," Wagner says. "We know people will be fishing there, and we may as well make it as friendly as possible."

According to Wagner, foundations for other structures built in fresh water have made wonderful reefs. "The fish love it!" he says. And just in case they don't, LEEDCo will carefully monitor underwater activity near the turbines. If anything is amiss, the problem can be addressed before more turbines are built.

Wagner has heard little dissent from Ohio's boaters and fishermen. "There have been one or two questions, but along the lines of, 'Are the rotors going to take off the mast on my sailboat?'" (The answer is no — there will be at least 75 feet between the tip of the blades and the water surface.)

But boater opposition could ratchet up soon. Earlier this month, Ohio boat clubs were plastered with a lengthy letter detailing the extent of and potential boating pitfalls of wind farms in Lake Erie. It was posted by a Buffalo resident and member of Great Lakes Concerned Citizens, which opposes offshore wind projects.

The eight-page epistle warns of the havoc more than 10,000 Lake Erie turbines could cause. "LEEDCo is not telling you about the many negatives involved as they are aware that an adverse reaction will soon take place," it reads. "We are helping that along."

The fate of Wagner's vision for the local economy will depend on which way the political winds blow elsewhere. Anti-wind groups have held up developments across the region. That means Ohio is winning the race to develop an equipment base and expertise — which is ideal, as long as those other projects eventually move forward.

But if other governments shut down their dreams of offshore wind, Cleveland may be left with just its five lake turbines — pretty for a postcard, but not much good for economic development or producing green energy on a grand scale.


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