Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer
An offshore wind project in Lake Erie, churned by regulatory crosscurrents, has begun flowing towards construction once again. But followers of the IceBreaker Wind project can be forgiven for harboring reservations about what lies ahead, due to the long-running back-and-forth. Back-and-forth notwithstanding, critics and proponents alike look at IceBreaker Wind as an, ahem, icebreaker to clear the path for more offshore wind in the Great Lakes.
IceBreaker Wind Project
For more than a decade, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) has been working to advance a windfarm eight miles off the coast of Cleveland in Lake Erie. The project would have six turbines with a combined production to power 7,000 homes. Outside advocates are split on the project: some environmental groups (like the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council) support IceBreaker Wind, while other environmental groups (like the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy) are leading the legal challenges to it. Additionally, a group of lakefront property owners and a coal company have become involved in the opposition to the project.
As this project has moved through the regulatory framework, stakeholders have continually pointed out that it will likely chart the course for future offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes. Up until this point, the future of freshwater offshore wind has been aspirational. The CEO of LEEDCo says this approach makes sense when launching a new industry: “[U]ntil you climb that first hill and see what’s out there, you better focus on that first hill.” Now that IceBreaker Wind has cleared some of its most significant hurdles, others in the industry are beginning to peak over the top of that first hill.
Diamond Offshore Wind Moves in on the Great Lakes
Way back when IceBreaker Wind was just a concept, optimism bubbled throughout the Great Lakes region about the promise of offshore wind. Major cities like Chicago, Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland sit just a few miles away from strong, consistent winds. The appeal of offshore wind in the Great Lakes is obvious: abundant energy close to the population centers that need it. Yet, the challenges are evident in IceBreaker’s decade-long saga.
With all the uncertainty that crept into the IceBreaker Wind project, proposals and planning for other offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes quieted down. Still, industry has kept its eyes on IceBreaker—looking for a proof of concept project to lay out the “pathway to responsible development.” Based on recent movement, it seems like players in the freshwater offshore wind space have seen the pathway they need.
One move has been in response to New York State’s 70% renewable energy target by 2030. Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, thinks the answer lies at least in part in a wind farm in Lake Erie off the coast of Buffalo. This project is in its earliest stages and is still waiting for the results of a feasibility study New York State is conducting.
Even with all the uncertainty of offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, there is a regulatory benefit to these freshwater projects over their ocean counterparts: while offshore projects in the ocean require approval from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), projects in the Great Lakes do not require BOEM’s involvement. This is notable because BOEM has been frustratingly absent from offshore wind development over the past few years.
Even with the benefits of advancing these offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes rather than the ocean, these projects are costly and time intensive. It makes sense that developers are cautious to jump into the unknown. Since IceBreaker Wind cleared some of its last major hurdles, however, we should expect to see more companies embarking on projects to harness the country’s greatest untapped natural resource.