CLEVELAND, Ohio - North America's first freshwater offshore wind farm scheduled to be constructed in Lake Erie next year is receiving a strong boost from electrical and steel union workers, entrepreneurs and business owners who support the project's job-creation and clean energy potential.
The supporters turned out in large numbers for a public hearing Wednesday night at Cleveland City Hall. By the end of the 3-1/2-hour hearing, a rough count of the 40-plus speakers showed supporters outnumbered opponents of the project by 7 to 1.
Certification by the Ohio Power Siting Board is required before construction can begin on the $126 million, six-turbine wind farm planned for a site about eight to 10 miles northwest of Cleveland in Lake Erie.
In the meantime, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., the nonprofit development group that is guiding the project, will be monitoring and analyzing the potential impact of the turbines on birds, bats and fish. The testing will be done at the lake site prior to the start of construction, during construction, and after the wind farm is built and operational.
LEEDCo's Beth Nagusky said the company expects the environmental surveys will confirm their risk assessments showing that Icebreaker will have minimal adverse impact on fish and wildlife.
But birding groups who oppose the plan aren't ready to surrender so easily.
Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, spoke in opposition to the wind project. She said the group fears the potential for high mortality rates due to collisions by birds and bats into the spinning fan blades.
"We see no evidence to support the claim that the project poses little to no risk to birds and bats," Kaufman said. "We believe the six-turbine Icebreaker project would pose a significant threat to wildlife."
Those dangers would be increased exponentially with the expected expansion of the Icebreaker pilot project to more than 1,000 turbines in Lake Erie, Kaufman said.
A representative of the National Audubon Society took a less oppositional stance, choosing to reserve his judgment until the wildlife surveys are completed.
Garry George, renewable energy director for Audubon, flew in from California to testify that fossil fuels and climate change pose greater threats to birds and wildlife than wind turbines. But, he maintained that more onsite data collection is necessary to determine the risk to birds and bats before the project moves forward.
George based his opinion on evidence that Icebreaker would be in an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area where nearly half of the world's population of red-breasted mergansers have been documented at one time, and where hundreds of millions of birds migrate each year.
Pre-construction mortality data will be "critical in order to avoid, minimize or mitigate effectively for the impacts on these birds," George said. "We urge the Board and other permitting agencies of the U.S. and Canada to form a working group to develop standards for wind energy development and protection of natural resources in the Great Lakes region."
David Beach, who addressed the siting board, said he is a birder and so are many of his friends. But he fears climate change more than he fears Icebreaker's potential danger to birds.
"If you really care about birds you should be supporting well-designed projects like this," said Beach, director of the GreenCity BlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "We should do everything we can to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels."
Dozens of business representatives and politicians spoke or filed written comments with the board, promoting the project's potential to create more than 500 jobs, add $168 million to the region's economy, and generate cheap green electricity for decades.
"One way or another, offshore wind is coming to the U.S., and we believe much of this industry should be based in Ohio," Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in a letter sent to the board.
Other supporters included U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, Congressman Matt Ryan, Port of Cleveland President and CEO Will Friedman, and Mike Foley, director of Cuyahoga County's Department of Sustainability.
"Fresh water, off-shore wind is a great, creative and practical way to put clean power into our local electricity grid and begin a new wave of environmentally friendly energy production," Foley said.
The power siting board is responsible for reviewing applications for the construction of major utility facilities such as power plants, transmission lines and wind farms. The board will hold a second public hearing at a later date after its staff publishes an investigation report.