CLEVELAND, Ohio - Opposition is mounting among birders and wildlife-lovers to a wind farm planned for offshore in Lake Erie in 2018, and the developers can't understand why.
"During my eight years of studying wind farms, this is the lowest-risk project of any I've worked on," said Caleb Gordon, an ornithologist from Houston who was hired as a consultant by LEEDCo, which is developing the Icebreaker project.
Gordon is helping to compile data for a risk assessment required for state certification. In an interview last week, he said he has told LEEDCo President Lorry Wagner that the developers' decision to build six wind turbines eight to 10 miles from shore was the best location for safeguarding migrating birds and bats.
But local and national birding groups don't believe it.
The American Bird Conservancy and the Ohio-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory filed a document with the Ohio Power Siting Board in September in which they argued that the "ill-conceived" project poses a devastating threat to "one of the world's greatest confluences of migratory birds and bats."
Black Swamp Executive Director Kim Kaufman and ABC's Michael Hutchins, director of the conservancy's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign, said they support clean, renewable sources of energy such as wind power. But they maintain that "the Great Lakes are not a good place for large-scale, commercial wind energy projects," particularly in a region designated as a Globally Important Bird Area.
"While some birds are able to avoid turbines, many others are apparently unable... to avoid the rapidly spinning blades," Kaufman and Hutchins wrote, citing a 2012 study that found an estimated 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed annually by wind turbines. More than 2,000 golden eagles have been killed at the Altamount Pass wind farm in California, the study found.
In defense of the Icebreaker project, Gordon cites statements from the National Audubon Society that the most devastating impact on birds is posed by climate change, which green projects such as wind and solar farms will help to alleviate.
Gordon also quoted from a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which found most migrants prefer to fly around, rather than across, Lake Erie, and that bird activity 10 miles offshore is relatively light.
"Just because the birds and bats are there doesn't mean they're going to die," Gordon said. "Exposure to wind turbines is not necessarily a risk."
LEEDCo officials took their case this week to the Ohio Power Siting Board.
"We presented information showing the large number of wind projects that have been permitted in Important Bird Areas nationwide, and data showing that the bird/bat mortality rate in these areas is no higher than in other areas," said Beth Nagusky, LEEDCo's director of Sustainable Development.
"In other words, the fact that the Lake Erie Central Basin was recently designated an IBA is totally irrelevant," Nagusky said.
Hutchins and Kaufman, however, contend the studies are flawed and were prepared by paid consultants "who would be expected to produce results that are favorable to the development."
In anticipation of this argument, Gordon and Nagusky have been meeting recently with some of the leading ornithologists and birders in Northeast Ohio in an attempt to seek their ideas and win their support for the project.
All of the birders agreed that independent, post-construction studies on bird and bat casualties are essential for determining whether the pilot wind farm can be safely expanded to include hundreds of turbines.
"I appreciate that they're reaching out to me for input, but it's hard to evaluate what they're going to do for monitoring until it's up and running," said Andy Jones, curator of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "This is only six turbines. I'm rooting for them to do independent pre-installation and post-installation surveys."
Stan Searles, executive director of the non-profit Global Conservation Connections, and Greg Smith, a professor of wildlife biology at Kent State's Stark campus, agreed that the most important aspect of the study is a plan to assess the environmental impact of the project to birds and bats.
"This plan should be transparent and comprehensive, and the results should be openly available, which would include publication in the peer-reviewed literature," Smith said.
In 2014, LEEDCo posted letters of support on their web site from the Ohio Environmental Council, Environment Ohio, and The Sierra Club, among others.
Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said wind projects such as Icebreaker could help Ohio attain its clean energy goals by 2025.
"We must weigh this upside with the potential downside of impacts to migrating birds and bats," Knights wrote in a Nov. 15, 2013, letter. "Given the choice of placing wind power offshore or onshore, we believe that the impacts to birds and bats will be far less if the decision is made to pursue the former."
Last month, Kaufman and Hutchins announced their intentions to file a federal lawsuit in an attempt to block the construction of a large wind turbine on Camp Perry in Ottawa County, less than a mile from Lake Erie. They said the turbine poses a danger to migrating birds and bats.