Much has been made of the Ohio Power Siting Board’s (OPSB) recent decision to approve the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp.’s (LEEDCo) Icebreaker wind turbine project. Misplaced criticism of the OPSB, the governor and other officials has centered on the condition that the project idles its turbines during nighttime hours in select months until LEEDCo can demonstrate there will not be an undue environmental impact on bats and migratory birds.
I have long been a critic of the Icebreaker project. Cleveland Public Power (CPP) put its captive customers on the hook by contracting to purchase power at a not-to-exceed price of 18.157 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for the first year the Icebreaker project is online, with a 16-year annual 1% price escalator. What made little financial sense in better economic times makes even less now. And according to a November 2019 trade-press article, this is a fact LEEDCo itself concedes.
This LEEDCo electricity sales contract with CPP calls for an exorbitant 900% premium relative to 2020 electric spot market prices, which have been hovering around 2 cents per kWh. And when you consider that $40 million of the estimated $120 million facility was going to be subsidized by taxpayers through U.S. Department of Energy grants, LEEDCo’s uncompetitive power price becomes all the more apparent.
LEEDCo has thus far seemingly suspended the laws of economics to get buy-in for this project. In that sense, I suppose it is understandable why its supporters would expect the laws of the state of Ohio to be similarly suspended.
However, the OPSB has a statutory duty to minimize adverse environmental impacts. LEEDCo worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and agreed to install monitoring equipment to demonstrate the turbines were not having a material adverse impact on bats and migratory birds.
Yet testimony before the OPSB revealed that LEEDCo had not identified this monitoring equipment technology. Testimony also revealed that in the 10 years the project was under development, LEEDCo never took actual radar data from the proposed site.
In light of this, in July 2018 the OPSB staff initially proposed that the turbines not operate from dusk until dawn from March 1 through Jan. 1 until the monitoring technology was installed and working. In its final decision, the OPSB implemented its staff’s original recommendation, although narrowed the restriction to eight months.
The OPSB then indicated that once the monitoring technology was installed and working, it would review, through a public and transparent process, the facility’s actual impact based on collected data. The OPSB’s decision spoke in favor of reducing the restrictions once LEEDCo completed the investigation that everyone agreed was needed to identify the risks to the bird and bat populations.
Without appropriate monitoring, the data needed to gauge the environmental impact simply cannot be gathered. With this in mind, it is reasonable for the OPSB to require operational limitations until LEEDCo installs monitoring technology. And then once LEEDCo installs the monitoring technology, the OPSB would publicly and transparently modify those limitations based on the results of the very investigation that LEEDCo agreed was necessary.
Various groups have singled out Gov. Mike DeWine and his appointees to the OPSB, accusing them of being against renewable energy for imposing the conditional operational restriction on the 20.7 megawatt (MW) Icebreaker project. But this is a red herring. The DeWine administration has a long track record of supporting renewables. For example, the OPSB has approved Ohio solar projects totaling more than 1,000 MW, with several currently under construction. DeWine also encouraged the enactment of the bipartisan House Bill 6 that provides financial incentives that will help these solar projects move forward.
The LEEDCo Icebreaker project was slated to be an economic failure for Northeast Ohio from the get-go. It also failed to take seriously its environmental responsibilities. Rather than taking ownership of the project’s internal failings, it is disappointing to see its proponents cast dispersions on the good men and women that comprise the OPSB. One cannot help but wonder if LEEDCo is merely using this rather unremarkable and foreseeable decision as its excuse for the failure of a project that the underlying economics fundamentally do not support.
Brakey is president of Brakey Energy in Chagrin Falls.
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