Utility Regulator Lifts Controversial Restriction From Lake Erie Wind Farm

photo of wind turbine
Icebreaker would include six turbines about eight miles off Cleveland's shoreline. [pla2na / Shutterstock]

Updated: 4:55 p.m., Friday, Sept. 18, 2020

The Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) has repealed a provision requiring a proposed wind farm in Lake Erie shut down its turbines overnight from March 1 to Nov. 1.

Board members unanimously approved a motion by Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, to remove the requirement at the OPSB meeting Thursday.

Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) applied to build the six-turbine project, named Icebreake, off Cleveland’s shoreline in 2017. It would be the first offshore, freshwater wind farm in the United States.

Questions about whether the project would threaten bats and migratory birds prompted stiff opposition from several groups.

When the permit was issued in May, LEEDCo President Dave Karpinski said the overnight shutoff stipulation, which his company referred to as a ‘poison pill,’ would make Icebreaker economically unrealistic.

“Imagine you’re going to the bank to get a mortgage and you say, ‘Here’s my salary. Oh, by the way, I may or may not get a third of that. I don’t really know what the rules are going to be.’ It’s really challenging. So that’s the situation that we’re in,” said Karpinski.

Sam Randazzo, Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which includes the OPSB, defended the restriction, saying it was meant to allow construction to begin while giving the developer and the state time to figure out the best way to protect birds and bats flying near the turbines.

Between the May approval, which included the shutoff provision, and Thursday’s decision, a massive scandal at the Ohio Legislature involving the state’s largest utility, FirstEnergy, former House Speaker Larry Householder, and $60 million in allegedly corrupt payments has thrown new scrutiny on how state energy policy is made.

Randazzo, who worked as an energy lobbyist before chairing the state’s utility regulator, defended the commission’s actions in the wind farm’s case.

“The reality is, as acknowledged by the bird and bat expert Icebreaker presented, this project is unique,” Randazzo said. “And that’s why so much time and effort was being spent in trying to figure out how to collect information that would be reliable for purposes of determining what the appropriate bird and bat risk mitigation protocols should be.”

The seven members of the board all voted in favor of removing the provision.

After the vote, Randazzo said the project will now have to wait until bird and bat protection protocols are agreed on before it can move forward.

Several lawmakers participate in board meetings as nonvoting members, including Cleveland-area Democrats state Sen. Sandra Williams and state Rep. Jeff Crossman. Both were proponents of the wind farm and critical of the decision to add the overnight shutoff requirement.

State Sen. Steve Wilson called in to the meeting to say Senate Republicans don’t think the board should take any action to block any type of energy production, wind power included.

LEEDCo's Karpinski welcomed the board's decision but said the delay was a major setback for the project.

"This was more than a bump in a road. We were fighting for our life here," Karpinski said. "If this wasn't reversed, there was no path forward. So we've got to re-evaluate. How do we get the project back on track?"

He said LEEDCo’s goal is still to build a wind farm in Lake Erie. 

Opponents of the wind farm also saw some reason for optimism after OPSB’s decision.

Because the restriction on overnight operation was part of the approval to start construction, the board withdrew its approval along with the restriction.

LEEDCo will need to meet new conditions set by OPSB before a new approval is granted.

Norm Schultz, an opponent of the project and president emeritus of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, said there’s plenty that needs to be done before windmills are constructed in the lake.

“We’re not totally out of the ballgame at all because now ODNR is going to have to take a serious, hard look at whatever mitigation plans LEEDCo can come up with,” Schultz said.

Officials from LEEDCo are challenging the requirement that a mitigation plan to prevent bird and bat deaths must be set before receiving approval to start construction.

“It’s my understanding that no wind projects go through this stage with a finalized mitigation plan at the time of the certificate,” Karpinski said.

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