Tilting at Windmills 

Cleveland may win the race to build offshore turbines, but why have others stopped trying?

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In Ontario, a burgeoning land-based wind initiative has resulted in improved air quality and reduced need for coal-fired electricity. But the province's commitment to green energy stalled when developers started eyeing the shoreline. In February, Ontario placed an indefinite moratorium on offshore wind development, including several projects that would have placed 715 turbines in Lake Erie.

The halt, even if temporary, may be enough to help Cleveland get its offshore wind industry off the ground here first.

"What seems to have happened was a decision was made to develop offshore wind very high up," Wagner says. "When most of the population of Ontario heard about it, they read it in the newspaper. No one ever came to talk to them.

"The other thing is, they wanted to put turbines a mile and a half offshore, so they were in your face."

He believes the situation up north will be sorted out — and offshore development will resume — after Ontario's October elections.

"They will have fewer turbines farther off shore, and they will have conversations with the public," Wagner says. "And once they get going, they're going to move so fast it will make your head spin."

John Wilkinson, Ontario's minister of the environment, indicates otherwise.

"We still have more questions than answers," he tells Scene. "And that is the driving force behind our decision to not move ahead with offshore wind development at this point."

Because offshore wind in fresh water is at such an early stage of development, Wilkinson says, Ontario will monitor research from Cleveland's pilot project and the wind farm in Sweden. This will help Ontario identify whether additional environmental safeguards are needed before the province moves forward.

In Michigan, pending legislation would prohibit using state-owned waters for turbine construction, wind energy transmission lines — even the placement of wind recording devices. Although no offshore wind development is planned in Lake Erie off the small swath of Michigan that lies between Toledo and Detroit, large projects were slated for Lake Michigan until the populace shot them down.

"Current public opinion in our area shows strong support for the ban on industrializing the Great Lakes," says Michigan Representative Ray Franz. Their reasons are numerous: disturbing fisheries and bird migration, navigational hazards for boaters, aesthetics, the high cost of wind energy, and unknown environmental impacts.

"Disturbing the bottom lands of the lakes that have not been disturbed for thousands of years could create a very negative impact," Franz says.

Wagner understands the Michigan problem. "They wanted to put [500-plus] turbines three miles off the nicest beaches of Lake Michigan," he says. "As much as I love offshore wind, I wouldn't want it if those were the beaches I went to. There was a firestorm."

Wagner adds that Michigan, like Canada, has expressed interest in watching how LEEDCo proceeds. He considers that a compliment and a handy advantage.

"Our leadership position is critical here," he says. "While we may only have a small project, we will have the lion's share of the ability to do it. We want them to hire our surveyors and geotech people."

If the LEEDCo project is delayed, New York may present some competition. The state plans to start by putting up to 166 turbines in Lake Erie, but construction won't begin before 2014.

Public outcry hasn't made the kind of dent in the New York project that it has in Ontario and Michigan. County lawmakers there have signed petitions opposing Lake Erie development, citing environmental concerns and negative impacts on tourism and recreation. But these are mere opinions, with no power to stop the state's plans.

"Initially, the power authority said they would consider the wishes of the communities, but it doesn't look like that is happening," says a spokeswoman for Erie County legislator Lynne Dixon.

Unlike in other regions, Wagner says LEEDCo is doing things the right way: starting with just five turbines, so that any unexpected environmental effects can be addressed before more are built. Community meetings, designed to hear residents' concerns at every step, seem to be panning out. Local opposition to LEEDCo's vision, he says, has been all but nonexistent.

"The community as a whole is very supportive of the offshore wind project," says Stefanie Penn Spear, founder and executive director of the local sustainability-promoting group Ecowatch.

"The exciting part of this project is that in addition to generating power from renewable sources, the companies and LEEDCo are very supportive in getting businesses to move to our region to create green jobs," she says.

Ecowatch supports offshore wind — as long as every turbine is sited properly. "When you talk about the future impact of the many proposed wind turbine projects on Lake Erie, my mind goes to all the issues impacting the lake from coal-fired power plants," Spear says. "And they are significant: acid rain, mercury levels. We've got to find a better way to power Ohio. Natural gas is not the silver bullet, because [hydraulic fracturing] to get it creates problems."

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