Windmills may evoke images of swaying tulips and verdant hills, but those spinning blades cut a dash in the environment – especially near the water.
Spinning turbines have the potential to affect shipping, mar a view and – most challenging to any project approval – imperil birds and other wildlife.
That’s why the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. is expressing relief and gratitude that its plans to erect the first wind farm on the Great Lakes has won the endorsement of leading environmental groups.
LEEDCo is proposing raising six turbines off the coast of Cleveland to test and pilot a fresh-water wind farm on Lake Erie. The nonprofit startup aims to create a wind energy industry in Northeast Ohio, one built by local labor using locally manufactured parts.
Its so-called Icebreaker project will require approvals from an alphabet of state and federal agencies, from the EPA to the FAA to the Army Corps of Engineers. LEEDCo began applying for critical permits two weeks ago. Tucked into its application packages are letters of support from pillars of the conservation community.
The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club lent its endorsement, as did Environment Ohio, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Ohio Interfaith Power & Light and the Earth Day Coalition.
Praise as well as support is coming from the Ohio Environmental Council, the state’s largest member-based environmental advocacy group.
“LEEDCo has completed comprehensive studies, which demonstrate that Icebreaker will deliver cleaner air while avoiding harm to wildlife,” Keith Dimoff, the council’s executive director, said in a statement. “The State of Ohio has an urgent need for more local sources of clean energy, and offshore wind could become a big part of the solution.”
Birding enthusiasts are not so fast to agree. Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ottawa County, wants to see deeper study.
“We’re not against wind energy, but we’re pro bird,” she said.
Her group worked with the American Bird Conservancy to stop the latest turbine project in northwest Ohio. The Air National Guard in January called a halt to a proposed wind farm at Camp Perry, on the Lake Erie shore, after the birders argued the spinning turbines would endanger migrating birds and bald eagles.
LEEDCo’s environmental impact studies indicate an on-the-water wind farm poses less danger to birds, partly because they migrate over shallower portions of the lake. The environmental groups generally agree.
That support could help sell an idea that’s expected to generate intense scrutiny. Icebreaker would be the first wind farm on the Great Lakes and maybe the first freshwater wind farm in the nation, depending on how other projects progress.
“There’s a whole lot of agencies looking at our project right now,” said LEEDCo spokesman Eric Ritter. “None of the agencies have ever permitted an offshore wind farm before. Everybody’s a little nervous about the first one.”
LEEDCo has already secured about $4 million in federal funds to design and engineer the wind farm. It’s now competing with five other offshore wind projects for a $46.7 million investment from the U.S. Department of Energy. Three winners are to be announced in May.
That kind of money could commence construction in the spring of 2017, Ritter said, and see Icebreaker through almost to its finish.
“It’s crucial funding,” he said. “We think we have a great chance to win it.”
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