With a surface water area larger than the entire UK, the five Great Lakes might seem like an obvious location for offshore wind. The US Department of Energy says that the lakes collectively boast the potential to provide 700 gigawatts of offshore electricity – enough to power millions of homes.
The Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (Leedco) is planning to build Icebreaker, a demonstration wind farm generating 20 megawatts of electricity several miles off the shore of Cleveland. The project would initially be small, starting with six turbines, with construction expected to begin as soon as 2025 and electricity coming online two years later.
And yet, it’s a game-changing move as North America’s first ever freshwater offshore wind project.
Icebreaker could pave the way for a new energy landscape for the US’s Great Lakes communities, a region of about 34 million people that’s heavily dependent on fracked natural gas and oil. Organizers of the project have suggested that, should it be successful, follow-on projects could provide up to 5,000 megawatts of electricity in the decades to come.
“We need to be part of the electrification transition, or we will be left behind,” says Jade Davis of the Port of Cleveland, which is partnering with Leedco on the project. “We already saw that with tech and that various parts of the country did not embrace that, and it had economic impacts.”
The potential for developing offshore wind in the Great Lakes region is enormous. Neighboring Michigan is surrounded by 3,288 miles (5,292km) of coastline – equivalent to the distance between London and Dubai. But despite its offshore access, it has depended on oil and natural gas for nearly 60% of its energy needs.
Wisconsin, which has three major cities situated along its 800 miles (1,290km) of Great Lakes coastline, received 42% of its electricity generation from coal plants in 2021. In Ohio, coal and gas make up a massive 82% of electricity generation.
But the demand for change is there. Davis says one-third of the power which the project is expected to generate has already been sold to local governments.
“We need to make sure that our grid in this region is strong,” he told the Guardian recently. “Companies are looking to come here because of its abundance of water and stable climate [so] the infrastructure has to be built.”
However, some locals fear the environmental fallout that a wind farm would incur. Bald eagles and other raptors hunt for fish off Lake Erie’s shore, the western fringes of which serve as an important transit route for migratory cranes, waterfowl and songbirds. A petition opposing the Icebreaker project has gathered more than 9,000 signatures.
“This is our national park,” said John Lipaj of the Lake Erie Foundation, which opposes Icebreaker. “Many people don’t want to see any project put in the lake until we do our proper due diligence.”
Lipaj said that diligence is through an environmental impact statement, or EIS, which is a detailed report prepared by federal agencies outlining a project’s potential effects on the human environment.
It’s not only wildlife that could suffer, project opponents argue. About 1.4 million people in the Cleveland area depend on Lake Erie for drinking water, and Lipaj is concerned oil that’s used as a lubricant inside the turbines could leak, though such cases are rare. There’s also fear that the construction process could stir up toxic sediment dredged decades ago from the Cuyahoga River, infamous for being so polluted that it caught fire in 1969.
However, monitors counter that their research shows the project would result in minimal lakebed disturbance, and any underwater agitation would occur away from where potentially dangerous sediment was dumped.
“The project is proposed to be five to seven miles [8 to 11km] offshore, which is a very low productivity part of the lake,” said Ed Verhamme, senior engineer at LimnoTech, a Michigan-based environmental consultancy that assessed the project’s environmental effects on and below the waterline. “In the summertime, there is no oxygen, there are no spawning grounds for perch or walleye or other major species out there.”
Verhamme said LimnoTech monitored wind, currents, waves and ice formation, collected water samples and plankton, and tracked movements of larval and juvenile fish at the site planned for the turbines. “We didn’t find any vulnerable fish, [and] we were so far from shore that there are no nursery areas,” he said.
The project is predicted to create up to 500 jobs. And during the construction phase, developers will be required to meet dozens of environmental markers, such as monitoring wildlife activity from April to November and deploying collision mitigation technology.
Other potential beneficiaries could include the local chartered fishing industry. On the Atlantic coast, fishing guides often take customers on trips to offshore wind farms as the submerged bases of turbines create mini reefs that fish and other aquatic life are known to congregate around.
Verhamme added that the construction of the Icebreaker project won’t have to contend with affecting migrating or resident fish and other aquatic life.
But Lipaj remains unconvinced. He said the jobs created by the project will go to skilled engineers from Europe rather than locals – a charge Davis of the Port of Cleveland rejects.
“We are for renewable energy,” said Lipaj, who has sailed and fished in Lake Erie since he was eight years old. “All we’re asking for is a proper, objective environmental study to be done. If an EIS shows it makes sense to do it, I think we would go along with that.”
For their part, the project backers are quick to highlight that this is a first, small step.
“This is still a demonstration project,” Davis said. “This is not necessarily going to lead to a massive, 2,000-turbine project. If a larger project did happen, it would have to go through the same regulatory and environmental processes.”
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/aug/16/lake-erie-icebreaker-great-lakes-wind-farm Great Lakes gets its first wind farm – but some fear environmental fallout | Wind power