Science, Tech & Environment

One of offshore wind power's best hopes is fading on Lake Erie

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Credit: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

This offshore wind farm near Copenhagen, Denmark, has become an important contributor to the country's power mix.

Offshore wind farms power more than six million homes in Europe. How many homes in America? Zero.

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That's despite the fact that, according to the Department of Energy, the US has offshore wind capacity that's four times larger than all of the electric power plants in the country combined. Yet wind energy projects in many states are being delayed or even cancelled.

In recent years, an offshore project was abandoned in New York; Pennsylvania has focused on natural gas as an energy source; and in Michigan the legislature introduced a bill to prohibit issuing permits for offshore wind turbines. For years, efforts to install wind turbines off Cape Cod in the Atlantic have also faced strong opposition.

But as recently as this spring, plans for a proposed wind farm near Cleveland on Lake Erie looked promising.

The idea for building a wind farm on Lake Erie was hatched 10 years ago. Wind energy developer Lorry Wagner says local leaders started looking toward the energy sector to create more jobs. That’s when they realized the region’s potential for offshore wind energy.

“The real resource is in the lake,” Wagner says. “You get about three times the energy over water due to the higher wind speeds, and less turbulence than you do on land.”

Wagner is president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, a nonprofit known as LEED Co. They started developing a pilot project to build a wind farm on the lake. Other Great Lakes states were also moving forward with offshore wind. In 2012, Pennsylvania, Michigan and others negotiated with federal agencies to streamline the permitting process, and it looked like the Great Lakes might be the nation’s first region to get a project in the water.

LEED Co.’s wind farm was in line to be that project: It was in the running for a $47 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy to get things started.

And then things changed.

Last month, the Department of Energy granted the money to offshore wind projects on the East and West Coasts. Cleveland newspapers have called it a gigantic setback for LEED Co., saying it may be time to pull the plug on the project.

In fact, the tide seems to have turned on wind development throughout the Great Lakes region. There has been vocal opposition. Some people are worried turbines might ruin their lake view. Others, like Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy, say they might harm migratory birds.

“Because of its location, this is an incredibly important bird migration area,” Hutchins says, “and there are endangered species going through this area as well.” Hutchins says more study is needed before turbines are built on the Great Lakes.

Some experts look back at the initial purpose of LEED Co.’s project, and say the region is potentially giving up on a huge new source of jobs. Willet Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware, notes that 58,000 people in Europe are now working in offshore wind, though the wind turbines continue to stir controversy there as well.

Kempton says the Obama administration’s proposed new carbon rules could help make offshore wind more attractive. But other government moves haven't helped — Ohio just weakened its renewable energy standards, and the federal government has rolled back wind energy tax credits.

Despite the setbacks, LEED Co. isn’t giving up on its wind farm on Lake Erie. A spokesman says they’re disappointed they didn’t get the federal grant money, but they’re still fully committed to making it happen.

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