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Hearing opens discussion on offshore wind farms

Giant wind turbines in Lake Erie could generate power for part of the eastern electric grid one day.

During a hearing at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center on Monday, representatives of companies interested in developing an offshore wind farm in Lake Erie outlined the pollution-free energy, manufacturing, and jobs that the system could generate.

State and federal agencies that would regulate an offshore wind farm and environmental groups questioning the plan also testified in the hearing.

The hearing was hosted by state Sen. Jane Earll, of Fairview Township, R-49th Dist., and state Sen. Mary Jo White, of Franklin, R-21st Dist., as an “early discussion” about whether offshore wind turbines can and should be developed in Pennsylvania lake waters, Earll said.

Tim Ryan, president of Apex Offshore Wind’s Erie office, at 130 West Eighth St., outlined a preliminary proposal to install up to 221 wind turbines in the lake, from Presque Isle west to the state line.

Such a system would generate shipbuilding and other manufacturing and related jobs and increase Erie port traffic, and would produce electricity at stable rates not dependent on coal or natural-gas prices, Ryan said.

An economic-impact study recently completed in Rhode Island estimated total economic benefits of an offshore wind farm at $750 million, Ryan said.

A similar proposal in Delaware would create between 80 and 100 full-time jobs plus 500 construction jobs, said Leslie Garrison, Great Lakes development project director for another wind energy company, NRG Bluewater Wind, in New Jersey.

But environmentalists and Erie residents said there could also be downsides – in the negative effect on fish that live in the lake and spawn in its tributary streams, and on bats and birds that migrate across Lake Erie between Presque Isle and Long Point, Ontario.

No lake land should be leased for wind farms until the migratory patterns of birds and bats are carefully mapped so that those areas aren’t developed, said Jeff Schmidt, director of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter, and Kim Van Fleet, important-bird area coordinator for Audubon Pennsylvania.

The Erie to Long Point corridor is an important part of the Atlantic Flyway, said Van Fleet, who showed photographs of birds and bats killed by wind turbines on land.

Many species of birds and waterfowl fly low enough to fly into turbine rotors, especially in poor weather, and are unable to see the spinning rotors because of motion blur, Van Fleet said.

“The number of shore birds, songbirds, raptors and waterfowl here can’t be found anywhere else in Pennsylvania,” Van Fleet said. “We need to protect that phenomenal resource.”

Andy Daniels, of Erie, questioned the potential effect of an offshore wind farm on the region’s drinking water.

“How many million tons of copper, zinc and steel are you going to be sticking in my drinking water in turbines and pipelines?” Daniels asked wind industry representatives. “Erie gets its drinking water from Lake Erie.”

The aesthetic effect of an offshore wind farm should also be considered, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that the Sierra Club supports offshore wind energy provided that wildlife, water quality, and other natural resources, “such as sunset views from the beaches of Presque Isle State Park,” are protected.

Schmidt and others praised wind farms’ “zero emission” energy generation.

Wind farm developers would be required to show how they would mitigate potential negative environmental and aesthetic effects through a rigorous public permitting process, representatives of the state and federal regulatory agencies said.

Earll underlined that reassurance. “No one’s going to be out there putting turbines in the lake without a lengthy process,” Earll said.

The benefit of offshore wind is that it’s stronger and more consistent than winds inland, developers said.

Apex’s preliminary proposal is to build a series of turbines off the Erie shoreline. The nearest turbine to shore would be about eight miles off Presque Isle. The others would be installed about 14 miles offshore, Ryan said.

Turbine rotors would channel offshore wind to electric generators, and in turn to an offshore station through underwater lines, and then ashore, Ryan said.

Such plans are very preliminary, industry and government officials said.

No offshore wind farms are under construction in the U.S. or even have been granted construction permits.

Cleveland area wind energy advocates, with funding help from the Cleveland Foundation, are working to locate the first offshore wind farm in Lake Erie in Ohio. Developers have an option to lease land under the lake and are working on requirements for permits to build turbines offshore in 2012.

Pennsylvania might do better to do nothing until it learns from the Cleveland project, White said.

“I think maybe we should wait and see how Ohio does it,” White said.

Legislation to permit Pennsylvania to lease lake waters for wind energy was introduced by state Rep. John Hornaman, of Millcreek Township, D-3rd Dist., in 2010.

Existing state law permits up to 25 acres of lake land to be leased, but that’s not enough for a commercial wind farm, industry representatives said Monday.