CLEVELAND, Ohio – Lingering fears about the impact of a Lake Erie wind farm on birds and bats appears to be the only remaining hurdle to building the first-ever U.S. freshwater wind turbine project.
That’s a high hurdle, however, according to a procession of clean water- and bird-loving opponents who delivered emotional appeals to state officials at a public hearing Thursday evening at City Hall.
The staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board has recommended the state allow the construction of the Icebreaker project with restrictions on night operation until the Lake Erie Energy Development Co. has received the results of monitoring studies obtained from cameras, radar and collision detectors. Construction is tentatively set to begin in 2021.
At a public hearing in November, Icebreaker supporters outnumbered opponents by roughly 7 to 1. Electrical and steel union workers, entrepreneurs and business owners turned out to voice their belief that the project has the potential to create more than 500 jobs, add $168 million to the region’s economy, and generate cheap green electricity for decades.
This time, the supporters again held the majority of the nearly 200 people in attendance, although more of the opponents opted to take turns at the microphone. Many appeared on behalf of the Cleveland Yacht Club and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
The hearing was peppered with applause and shouted comments, requiring a siting board officer to occasionally chastise the offenders.
Of primary concern to the wind farm opponents are not only the six turbines that one day may be spinning 8-to-10 miles northwest of downtown Cleveland, but also that the Icebreaker demonstration project would open Lake Erie to a thousand or more wind turbines in the future.
John Lipaj of Westlake, representing the Lake Erie Foundation, joined those concerns, asking the state board to determine if Icebreaker is a stand-alone project or an avenue to justify a thousand or more wind farms.
If that is the case, “we are requesting a complete environmental impact statement for the full 1,400 to 1,500 wind turbines before this project moves any further in the permitting process,” Lipaj testified. “There are far too many unknowns at this time that need to be answered before going forward.”
The siting board staff and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have determined that the $26 million project will have a minimum environmental impact. That finding is predicated on LEEDCo’s ability to study bird and bat collisions during two years of operation, and could determine if the turbines are safe enough to spin at night when most migration occurs.
LEEDCo officials have said they are confident the non-profit company’s monitoring plan can meet the demands from the siting board and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Kimberly Kaufman, one of the most outspoken opponents of Icebreaker, has criticized the company’s claims as flawed, arguing that the wind farm would prove deadly to flocks of migrating birds at a site deemed a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, cited recent Fish and Wildlife radar studies that recorded vast flocks of migrating birds and bats flying within the rotor-swept area of the proposed wind turbines.
“The six-turbine Icebreaker project poses a larger threat to wildlife than is now indicated in the documents,” Kaufman said in a written statement. “But the planned expansion of offshore wind energy to over 1,000 turbines will have even more major impacts to birds that breed and migrate across Lake Erie, and that must be addressed.”
Fish and Wildlife officials estimate more than 30 million birds die annually from collisions with power lines, communications towers, buildings and wind turbines.
Other environmental groups voiced their support for wind energy, with the caveat that the turbines are located properly and don’t produce avian carnage.
Garry George, Renewable Energy Director for the National Audubon Society, cited a climate report that found only a major reduction in power plant emissions would prevent a severe impact on more than 300 species of birds. He gave preliminary support for the project under the condition it is properly sited and doesn’t have a fatal impact on birds in the Central Basin.
“Transforming our energy sector to renewables not only saves birds but also benefits people in cleaner air, new jobs and new growing economies in wind and solar development areas,” George testified. “Our concern is the potential impact of the Icebreaker project on water birds, especially the significant wintering population of red-breasted mergansers and the millions of birds that migrate twice a year at night over the lake.”
The Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council have voiced similar sentiments.
“For the sake of birds, the environment and nature’s beauty, wind and solar power are a vastly better choice than coal, oil and nuclear energy,” the Sierra Club proclaims on its web site.
The national Sierra Club emphasizes that proper siting and design of wind turbines can greatly reduce harmful impacts on birds. Other considerations should include mitigation measures to avoid turbine operation during peak migration periods, especially during daily flight periods for endangered species such as the Kirtland’s warbler.
Other supporters of the project include Mayor Frank Jackson, Councilman Matt Zone, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Congresswomen Marcia Fudge and Marcy Kaptur, Congressmen Dave Joyce and Matt Ryan, and Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.
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.
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