It’s been called the “Saudi Arabia of wind” – not an oil-soaked desert, but a breezy lake on Ontario’s American border.
Now, an Ohio group is moving ahead with plans to harness Lake Erie’s strong gusts, in sharp contrast to neighbouring Ontario that slapped a moratorium on wind farms in all its Great Lakes amid a public backlash to the spectre of the highrise-sized turbines along its shorelines.
The Icebreaker, as it’s been dubbed, will be a small demonstration project with six wind turbines in Erie, about 10 kilometres northeast of Cleveland. It would be North America’s first freshwater wind farm, with construction starting in 2018.
But the project’s backers have visions of wringing much more electrical power out of Erie, saying more than 1,000 industrial wind turbines could be built along the shore of Ohio, a small state without the huge land mass for giant wind farms found in places like Ontario, Texas and Iowa.
Together, all that juice would add up to nearly double the output of Ontario’s inland wind farms, most of which are located in Southwestern Ontario.
“We are definitely going forward – all system are go,” said Dave Karpinski, vice-president of operations for a consortium behind the project, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo).
An alliance of four Ohio counties, the city of Cleveland and some private-sector groups and foundations, the consortium foresees wringing enough power out of wind-blown Erie to have “a sizable impact” on the state’s energy muscle, Karpinski said.
“Our vision is 5,000 megawatts over the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Doing the math for how much each turbine can generate, that would require installing about 1,600 wind turbines in the lake.
By comparison, Ontario’s existing wind farms – lightning rods for controversy in many rural areas – together have the capacity to turn out about 3,200 megawatts of power.
Ontario’s Liberal government plunged headlong into green energy six years ago, as it prepared to shut down its dirty coal-fired power plants, signing sweetheart deals with wind energy giants that enraged its critics and stripping municipalities of control over where the giant turbines could be built.
As the opposition mounted, Ontario was poised to plunk down major wind farms in the Great Lakes, with companies advancing proposals for projects in lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Superior. But facing a growing backlash from cottagers and others in the run-up to the 2011 election, the Liberals backed off and abruptly slapped a moratorium on offshore wind farms.
In imposing the moratorium, which triggered billions of dollars in ongoing lawsuits against the government by disappointed energy companies, the government said more study was needed before a decision could be made.
That’s not about to change, a spokesperson for Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli said.
Ontario won’t proceed with offshore wind projects until there’s enough scientific evidence they can be developed in a way that protects both human health and the environment,” said Jordan Owens, Chiarelli’s press secretary.
“We’re taking the time needed to get this right,” he said.
But south of the border, in the Buckeye State, plans are moving apace.
Drawing on experience and expertise from Europe, Karpinski said he has no doubts the modest 20-megawatt wind farm that will launch the project
will be a success, opening the door to development of offshore wind farms in Lake Erie for much more wind energy.
But unlike in Ontario, where offshore wind farms were proposed close to land, the turbines of the Icebreaker project will only be visible from shore on a clear day – but only barely, as thumbnail-sized images on the horizon, Karpinski said.
Without vast stretches of land for wind farms, he said it’s only natural for Ohio to look to its wind-blown shoreline along Erie – the lake that Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur compared to the Saudi kingdom’s ocean of oil.
“In fact, we have no other choices,” Karpinski said.
Canada’s wind energy industry remains keen about putting turbines in the lakes, where winds blow steadier and more reliably than on land.
“Offshore wind energy development is a proven technology that certainly represents an opportunity to provide additional clean energy benefits for Ontario. The wind energy industry remains interested in working with the Government of Ontario to explore opportunities for Ontario’s offshore wind energy resources,” Jean-François Nolet, vice president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, an industry group, wrote in an e-mail.
Jane Wilson, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, the umbrella organization for groups opposed to wind farms, said she wasn’t aware of the Erie proposal.
Once the demonstration wind farm is completed, the move to utility-scale wind farms in the lake will depend on a series of factors, including national politics and energy policy in the U.S. and the price of natural gas, Karpinski said.
Natural gas is burned in many areas, including Ontario, to generate power.
While the prospect of wind farms in the lakes sparked heated opposition in Ontario, the Icebreaker project has won the support of several lakefront communities in Ohio that have passed resolutions of support, Karpinski said.
He said a freshwater wind farm has several advantages over saltwater projects, including weaker currents, smaller waves and less corrosion.
The downside, is that a freshwater project has to be engineered to withstand the stresses of winter ice, he said.
Backers of wind farms in the Great Lakes are ecstatic about Erie’s potential, he said.
“What you have is really great wind in Lake Erie – you are close to large demand sources (for power) and it (the lake) is really shallow,” Karpinksi said. “The conditions make it ideal for offshore wind.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
0: Wind turbines now in the Great Lakes
6: Number Ohio group would start with, in Lake Erie
1,000+: Number foreseen
5,000: Megawatts of power foreseen
3,200: Ontario’s generating capacity, in megawatts, from all inland wind farms
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