Offshore Wind Energy Faces Setbacks in Great Lakes

  • A demonstration wind turbine in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Julie Grant

  • Eric Ritter, spokesman for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, known as LEED Co, along the Cleveland shoreline near a proposed wind farm. Photo: Julie Grant

June 26, 2014

The United States is not yet generating a watt of energy from commercial offshore wind. A couple of years ago, it looked like the Great Lakes might lead the nation. Pennsylvania was among a handful of states working with federal agencies to speed up the process.  As recently as a couple of months ago, construction of a wind farm in Lake Erie, off the Ohio shoreline near Cleveland, looked promising. But now some are sounding the death knell for any wind development in the Great Lakes.

The idea for building a wind farm in Lake Erie near Cleveland was hatched ten years ago. Wind energy developer Lorry Wagner says leaders started looking toward the energy sector to create more jobs. That’s when they realized the region’s potential for offshore wind energy.

“The real resource is in the Lake. And the reason for that is you get about three times the energy due to the higher wind speeds and less turbulence than you do on land.”

The Department of Energy estimates the country has an offshore wind capacity of 4 million megawatts. That’s four times the generating capacity of all U.S. electric power plants.

Wagner is president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, a non-profit known as LEED Co.

They started developing a pilot project, to build a wind farm out in the lake. Other Great Lakes states were also moving forward with offshore wind.  In 2012, Pennsylvania, Michigan and others negotiated with federal agencies to streamline the permitting process. A proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound called Cape Wind was mired in lawsuits, and it looked like the Great Lakes might be the nation’s first region to get a project in the water.

And LEED Co.’s wind farm was in line to be that project. LEED Co was in the running for a $47 million grant from the Department of Energy to get things started.

Standing on the Cleveland pier in late April, LEED Co spokesman Eric Ritter pointed out into the Lake, at where they plan to build six turbines. Each would be taller than the Statue of Liberty. Ritter was confident LEED Co. would win.

“We’re anticipating good news in couple of weeks.”

But they didn’t get good news. Last month, the Department of Energy granted the money to off-shore wind projects on the east and west coasts.

Cleveland newspapers have called it a gigantic setback for LEED Co., saying it may be time to pull the plug on the project.

In fact, the tide seems to have turned on wind development throughout the Great Lakes region. There has been vocal opposition. Some people are worried turbines might ruin their lake view.

Others, like Michael Hutchens of the American Bird Conservancy, say they might harm migratory birds.

“Because of its location and the importance to bird migration coming along the south shore of Lake Erie. This is an incredibly important bird migration area. And there are endangered species going through here as well.”

Hutchens says more study is needed before turbines are built in the Great Lakes. Instead, it looks like states are retreating. In recent years, an offshore project was abandoned in New York, Pennsylvania has focused on natural gas as an energy source, and in Michigan, the legislature introduced a bill to prohibit permits for offshore wind turbines.

Some experts look back at the initial purpose of LEED Co’s project, and say the region is potentially giving up on a huge new sector for jobs.

“In Europe, which means primarily the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany, there’s a total of 58,000 workers now working in offshore wind.”

Willett Kempton, a professor focused on offshore wind at the University of Delaware, says Cape Wind off the Massachusetts coast was the U.S.’s first foray into offshore wind. But the ensuing lawsuits have had a chilling effect.

“Other developers were scared off, because they were like, ‘Wow, these guys are just burning money, and they’re not getting anywhere toward building a project.”

Kempton says the Obama administration’s new proposed carbon rules could help make offshore wind more attractive. But he says it hasn’t helped Ohio just weakened its renewable energy standards, and that the federal government rolled back the wind energy tax credits.

Despite the setbacks, LEED Co isn’t giving up on its wind farm on Lake Erie. A spokesman says they are disappointed they didn’t get the federal grant money, but they are still fully committed to making it happen.

Photo of Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, Copenhagen, Denmark: Kim Hansen via Flickr Creative Commons.