An offshore wind development. (Konstantin Sahnjuk / EyeEm/Getty Images).
Despite approval from a multitude of oversight agencies, a pilot offshore windmill project on Lake Erie is facing some strong headwinds the next few months amid the fallout of Ohio’s ongoing energy scandal.
In the summer of 2009 — with the backing if the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga and Lorain counties, the Cleveland Foundation and other influential public and private agencies — the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) was formally started. The purpose was simple and basic: With energy production changing into more renewables and less dependent on old coal-fired power plants, LEEDCo was to develop a small windmill pilot program in Lake Erie called “Icebreaker.”
LEEDCo was always more about basic economics than being an environmental fringe outpost. The six windmills eight miles offshore would provide electricity to the nearby grid, but also could be a big boost for the Cleveland and Ohio economy. The project showed such investment promise that the U.S. Department of Energy gave them a $40 million grant in 2016.
“This could be incredibly transformative,” Cleveland Foundation president and CEO Ronn Richard said in 2017. “The Midwest could become the epicenter of wind turbine manufacturing. And we could ship them across the Great Lakes.”
The reasoning for this was very simple. Opposition to windmills has generally come from people who live next door to the spinning blades, and being offshore takes that out of the equation. And the thinking goes that the Great Lakes could be ripe for such renewable energy offshore, given that there are about 100,000 square miles of water surface (with 10,000 square miles being in Lake Erie).
Despite dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” to get the small offshore windmill energy farm up and running — and that included getting approval by the U.S. EPA, the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Environmental Council, The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Ohio Attorney General and others for over ten years — the project is facing some tough going in the next few months.
The whole history of this pilot offshore windmill program is long and laborious in its hearings and special interests coming forward, but the latest problems are directly connected with the ongoing investigation over energy company FirstEnergy and the HB 6 bill corruption scandal in the Ohio state legislature.
What is relative to the Icebreaker project’s status involves Sam Randazzo, the energy lobbyist who Gov. Mike DeWine appointed in February 2019 as the state’s top regulator at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). According to court documents in the case, Randazzo had received $22 million from FirstEnergy Corp. in the decade before his appointment as a lobbyist — including $4.3 million paid just before assuming the post.
What Randazzo did a year later involving Icebreaker was quite questionable when he chaired the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), a powerful group under PUCO which oversees locations and regulations of any and all energy infrastructure. The OPSB ruled in May of 2020 that the Icebreaker project could only move forward if its blades were turned off every night for eight months of the year.
The reason? Randazzo enacted this action, which some have called a poison pill, because he claimed the eight windmills would kill too many birds and bats. But there was no proof it would. A study that was required of LEEDCo found there might be 21-42 birds and 21-83 bats put at risk by the 21-megawatt wind farm that would produce enough electricity to power about 7,000 homes.
An ornithologist, Caleb Gordon, who prepared the bird and bat study for a LEEDCo, had called it “the lowest risk project” he ever studied.
By contrast, numerous studies demonstrate that far more bird deaths are caused by collisions with buildings (676 million), vehicles (214 million), and power lines (32 million) in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that somewhere between 140,000 and 500,000 bird deaths occur at wind farms each year in the U.S. , all of them on land.
Even though the OPSB overruled the Randazzo-led ruling in October 2020 after he resigned, the action he had previously taken has led to some serious consequences for the pilot program. Icebreaker went from being a likely first-ever U.S. offshore wind energy program to becoming way behind the projects getting certified off the east coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The Biden Administration announced in mid-October it was backing these ocean offshore wind energy projects with federal government funding and government help on infrastructure work.
After more than a decade of hard work, the Icebreaker project is now in flux. Two intervenors from Bratenahl, Ohio, a suburb east of downtown Cleveland, has filed protests over the windmill project because they thought the project would hurt birds and fishing in the lake, and the eight-mile distant windmills would also allegedly disturb their view from their balconies at their high-rise condos. The Randazzo ruling and subsequent flip has opened up the courts to decide the fate of this protest.
Courts will have to rule on whether the change of the OPSB action was legal. The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on this issue on Dec. 7, and there will likely be no high court ruling until well into 2022 or early 2023.
This delay has put the project into a bad spot regarding the private funding necessary to get the project completed. The U.S. Department for Energy is ready to pull its grant ($37 million yet unspent) because the timeframe in which it needs to be used will expire, and the foreign investor, Norwegian wind energy builder Fred Olson Renewables, which was likely going to invest a large part of the $173 million needed to complete the project and have some ownership, might pull out.
According to some involved in saving Icebreaker, the logical solution would be get some statewide funding from places like the American Rescue Plan federal grants to keep Icebreaker from dying, given that the state of Ohio has about $5.4 billion to spend from that program. But the Republican-led state legislature doesn’t seem too inclined to do any backing of renewable energy sources, so the certainty of any legislative solution remains very vague at this point.
State Rep. Jeff Crossman, D-Parma, sent a letter in August asking for PUCO to investigate Randazzo’s role in helping to kill the windmill project.
“While Sam Randazzo professed to be ‘transparent,’ it is obvious now that was not the case,” Crossman wrote. He has asked specifically for “Documentation of any communication between FirstEnergy (and any of its agents, lobbyists, attorneys, etc.) and Randazzo regarding the proposed wind turbine project in Lake Erie (the “Ice Breaker” project).”
State Rep. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, wrote an opinion column recently in the Akron Beacon Journal supporting the project.
“Ohio is connected to COP26 by the Icebreaker Project … [It] would be a first-in-the-nation demonstration project to help the United States learn how to build offshore wind in the Great Lakes. It would continue to chart the course of offshore wind that the present federal administration has made a priority. Icebreaker could launch a new national enterprise that employs hundreds of Ohioans — if state government would just let it happen.”
The city of Cleveland announced in February it was “considering” an inquiry into Randazzo’s role in the HB 6 investigation as it related to the LEEDCo project, though how far it has moved along remains unclear at this point.
Many supporters are still puzzled how this seemingly small and relatively unobtrusive project — with the backing of government groups, investors, and private foundations — got derailed like this. Many thought the Great Lakes were ripe for offshore wind projects, given that LEEDCo had solved some of the problems that might be associated with winter ice, waves and anchoring it on the Lake Erie floor.
“For many years, the [Ohio Environmental Council] and Sierra Club have supported Icebreaker Wind,” Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy for the Ohio Environmental Council, said in a statement last year after Randazzo initial decision.
“Responsibly developing this offshore wind demonstration project will help us not only achieve cleaner air and healthier communities, but it will also put Ohio on the map as a leader in renewable energy technologies as this project would be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. We thank LEEDCo for their diligence in protecting the environment, not only by working to bring clean energy to our state, but also to ensure that any potential adverse impact was minimal.”
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