Developers face obstacles to offshore wind farms in Great Lakes

Jun 19, 2014

As recently as a couple of months ago, construction of a wind farm in Lake Erie, off the Ohio shoreline near Cleveland, looked promising. But now some are sounding the death knell for any wind development in the Great Lakes. 

The Department of Energy estimates the country has an offshore wind capacity of four million megawatts. That’s four times the generating capacity of all U.S. electric power plants.

Michigan was among a handful of states working with federal agencies a few years ago to speed up the development of wind farms off the shores of the Great Lakes. 

Wind energy developer Lorry Wagner says leaders started looking toward the energy sector to create more jobs. He says that’s when they realized the region’s potential for offshore wind energy.

“The real resource is in the lake. And the reason for that is you get about three times the energy due to the higher wind speeds and less turbulence than you do on land," he says.

Lake Erie pilot project

Eric Ritter, spokesman for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, stands along the Cleveland shoreline near a proposed wind farm.
Eric Ritter, spokesman for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, stands along the Cleveland shoreline near a proposed wind farm.
Credit Julie Grant / Michigan Radio

Wagner is also president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Company, a non-profit known as LEED Co.

They started developing a pilot project, to build a wind farm out in 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. A proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound called Cape Wind was mired in lawsuits, and it looked like the Great Lakes might be the nation’s first region to get a project in the water.

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

In late April,  LEED Co. spokesman Eric Ritter stood on a Cleveland pier pointing out where the company plans to build six turbines at Lake Erie. He said that each wind turbine would be taller than the Statue of Liberty. Ritter was confident LEED Co. would win the federal support.

“We’re anticipating good news in couple of weeks,” he said at the time.

Federal funding falls through

But the Department of Energy granted the money to projects on the east and west coasts. Cleveland newspapers called it a gigantic setback for LEED Co., saying it may be time to pull the plug on the project.

Meanwhile, there has been vocal opposition from residents. People are worried turbines might ruin their lake view, and harm migratory birds.

And the downturn is continuing across the region. In recent years, an offshore project was abandoned in New York, while Pennsylvania has focused instead on natural gas as an energy source. In Michigan, the Legislature introduced a bill to prohibit permits for offshore wind turbines.

A new job sector?

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 sector for jobs.

“In Europe, which means primarily the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany, there’s a total of 58,000 workers now working in offshore wind,” says Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor who studies offshore wind. Kempton says the contested Cape Wind project was the U.S.’s first foray into offshore wind, but the ensuing lawsuits have had a chilling effect.

“Other developers were scared off, because they were like, ‘Wow, these guys are just burning money, and they’re not getting anywhere toward building a project.' ”

Kempton says the Obama Administration’s new proposed carbon rules could help make offshore wind more attractive. But he says it hasn’t helped that the federal government rolled back the wind energy tax credits.

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