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A clean-energy project on Lake Erie faces stiff head winds because of warblers and waterfowl

Lake Erie is an important stopover for red-breasted mergansers as they migrate every spring and fall. The Icebreaker Wind project to be built offshore has raised concerns about the risk its turbines would pose to birds and waterfowl. (Jim McCormac)
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This story has been updated.

CLEVELAND — The nation's first wind energy project on fresh water has big ambitions. It also has big bird problems.

Known as Icebreaker Wind, it aspires to position as many as several hundred turbines on Lake Erie, where strong winds, shallow depths and the proximity of power stations would seem to be a winning trifecta. According to the project’s developer, the potential could meet 10 percent of the nation’s electricity needs by 2030.

But a pilot with six turbines is facing strenuous opposition from some wildlife activists because of the risk they say it would pose to the millions of warblers and waterfowl that migrate over this Great Lake every spring and fall.

In a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, the project’s supporters are having a hard time fighting back. They need data that can’t be collected until a minimal number of blades are up and turning.

“It’s really a strange situation we find ourselves in,” said Dave Karpinski, president of the nonprofit organization Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., or LEEDCo, who is eager to put his state on the wind energy map and help combat climate change. “We always knew it was going to be a tough, long road.”

Officially, Icebreaker Wind has a green light from the Ohio Power Siting Board to build the half-dozen turbines in a north-northwest line eight to 10 miles from Cleveland.

LEEDCo says it would produce enough electricity to power some 7,000 homes in a region that remains highly dependent on fossil fuels, with “some of the nation’s dirtiest air.” Over the next 25 years, the developer also estimates a $253 million boost to the local economy.

In May, however, the state board unexpectedly imposed new restrictions. It said Icebreaker must conduct radar studies of bird and bat traffic over the proposed site before and after construction. And nighttime operation of the turbines must be suspended during the months-long migration periods, unless and until studies conclude that is unnecessary.

Opponents consider these modifications a victory. Throughout its history, they have clamored for research to better understand migration over the lake and the effects the turbines could have. They say they will respect study findings so long as that research is done properly.

“We’ll live with whatever the conclusions are,” said Mark Shieldcastle of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a group based in northwest Ohio that has opposed the project for more than a decade. “We just want there to be good science.”

Last week, two environmental groups that back Icebreaker called for the state board to reverse course. The appeal by the Ohio Environmental Council and Sierra Club labels the additional restrictions “unlawful and unreasonable” and says they contradict “clear and substantial evidence in the record” that the pilot as previously negotiated represents minimum adverse impact.

“With Project Icebreaker, Cleveland has the chance to shed its image as a Rust Belt city recognized all too often as the city whose river burned,” the appeal notes. “With Project Icebreaker, the city can begin a different kind of industrial future.”

Because of the risk they can pose to birds, turbine projects such as Icebreaker often face stiff head winds, roiling even some groups that generally favor renewable energy. President Trump, whose administration is not among them, has repeatedly jumped into the fray. In a speech in Florida last December to young conservatives, he described ​the area under “windmills” as a “bird graveyard.”

Still, some locations carry higher risk than others. The National Audubon Society deems Lake Erie an area of global significance, a key passageway in many birds’ migration between nesting grounds in Canada and winter homes in Central and South America. The lake also sees large numbers of waterfowl in winter.

Andy Jones, chair of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said Lake Erie has served as a stopover for as many as a quarter of North America’s red-breasted mergansers, a diving duck, and for delicate songbirds such as the wood thrush and cerulean warbler.

Yet the turbines wouldn’t just be a hazard, according to Jones, they’d be an attraction. When the lake is frozen, waterfowl would be drawn to the open water the turbines would generate, he said.

The warbler population is already in trouble, he said. “The whole ecosystem is declining. Let’s not add another threat on top of that.”

LEEDCo views the state power board’s stipulations as a “poison pill” that effectively will kill Icebreaker and ward off investment in any larger wind project. Already, Karpinski said, the Norwegian wind developer backing Icebreaker, Fred. Olsen Renewables, is “losing interest.”

“Of what value is a permit to build the project if you don’t have authority to operate it in a commercially viable manner?” Karpinski said in a recent email. “It’s sad that we have the opportunity to be in a leadership position, and we’re turning our back on it. More than that, we’re slamming the door.”

Until the board’s decision in May, Karpinski said he thought the door was opening. A 2019 nonbinding agreement with the state board required collision monitoring but did not limit nighttime operations. It included a consultant’s radar research that showed a low density of migration and bird flight above the proposed turbines.

The research, Karpinski said, signaled that the six turbines would pose “minimal” risk to wildlife.

“This permit is for six and only six,” he said. “Exposure doesn’t mean mortality. Just because you have a hazard doesn’t mean you’re going to have high mortality.”

The board concluded otherwise, despite LEEDCo’s “extensive” efforts. “We are concerned that even the improvements . . . may not be sufficient to minimize impacts on these species,” it wrote in its decision.

Ohio bird activists aren’t about to let up pressure. To them, the larger question isn’t how much energy might be generated on Lake Erie or even the safety of turbines, it’s the value of biodiversity.

How important are cerulean or Kirtland’s warblers, or any other species that migrates over the lake?

“When you get to hold a bird in your hand, all the other issues go away,” said Don Bauman, who leads the observatory organization. “This is a life, and it really does make a difference.”

The birders also take seriously Icebreaker’s status as a demonstration project. If Icebreaker is the test case for hundreds of turbines on Lake Erie, it should be held to the highest scientific standards, they say. That means conducting radar studies on the water, under a wide variety of weather.

Like the warblers they love, wildlife activists are also eyeing Canada. That country imposed a moratorium in 2011 on offshore wind projects on Lake Ontario, pending evidence of Icebreaker’s impact. Activists say wind energy development in Ohio could trigger the same outcome in Canada, doubling the number of turbines in the region.

“We’d better do this right,” Bauman said, “because the next step is a really big one.”

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