Icebreaker, the only advanced offshore wind project in the Great Lakes, appears to be dead in the water.
After years of permitting battles, the Ohio Power Siting Board this week approved the Icebreaker project, but it came with a “project-killing” catch: The wind farm would be forced to pause its turbines at nighttime between March and November to protect birds and bats, gutting its revenue stream.
The six-turbine Icebreaker project has been under development for a decade by the nonprofit Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) at a site eight miles off Cleveland’s shore.
“We still have to evaluate things, but it’s looking like this could be the final nail in the coffin,” LEEDCo President Dave Karpinski said in an interview.
Icebreaker has a chance to lift the turbine restrictions after collecting and submitting monitoring information, but the freshwater project cannot get built in the first place with the restrictions in place, Karpinski said.
Icebreaker was seen as a way to open an important new regional market for U.S. offshore wind development, as momentum grows along the Atlantic Coast. Dominion Energy is about to start construction of the second U.S. offshore wind project off Virginia.
Icebreaker has a number of important backers. The project would have been built and operated by Icebreaker Windpower Inc., owned by Fred Olsen Renewables — a unit of Norwegian energy and shipping conglomerate Bonheur. Icebreaker won research funding from the U.S. Energy Department and has agreements in place to sell about two-thirds of its above-market-rate power to the municipal utility in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. MHI Vestas was slated to supply the 3.45-megawatt turbines.
But the 20.7-megawatt Icebreaker also has some powerful enemies, including Murray Energy Corp., the Ohio-based coal miner, which has bankrolled lawyers representing local residents opposed to the project.
Karpinski said LEEDCo was “stunned” by the Ohio Power Siting Board’s decision, only learning about it from a press release issued on Thursday.
An unexpected rejection
The requirement to turn off the turbines at night — known as “feathering” — had come up in earlier permitting discussions, but LEEDCo insisted that such a condition would make the project impossible to finance. Last year LEEDCo reached agreement on that point with the Ohio Power Siting Board’s staff, in what was seen as a critical step toward securing the board’s final approval.
In the end, however, the board added the requirement back in.
“We were hearing things from inside the [Siting Board’s] staff that everything was going to come out as expected and be issued in accordance with that agreement,” Karpinski said. “And lo and behold, it comes out and it was a total surprise that they added that back in. There was no forewarning. There was nothing over the past seven months that said we think this agreement has a problem — nothing.”
The Ohio Power Siting Board is a quasi-judicial agency with seven voting members, helmed by the chairman of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, Sam Randazzo.
Matt Schilling, director of the office of public affairs at Ohio’s PUC, pointed out that the Siting Board itself was not bound by the earlier agreement its technical staff reached with LEEDCo. “This is the first and only time the Board has issued any opinion on the case," Schilling wrote in an email. “Yes, the [Siting Board's] technical staff issued a staff report and signed settlement agreements, [but] they are not the voting board."
Schilling noted that the Siting Board’s approval means LEEDCo can now build the project as long as the conditions are met, adding that it’s common for project approvals to carry conditions. “What happens after the Board issues its decision is then a business decision [is made] by the developer.”
Schilling said LEEDCo has 30 days to file an application for a rehearing at the Siting Board, and the developer could then appeal the decision to Ohio’s Supreme Court.
But Karpinski said those options look like dead ends. “The appeal process goes back to the same board and asks them to reconsider their opinion. We had an agreement with that same organization and they went back on it,” he said.
“We could appeal to the Supreme Court, but appellate courts look more closely at procedural violations and that kind of thing, not technical opinions on impacts, so we don’t see that as being able to prevail. And then it’s a question of...how long and how much is that going to take.”
A blow for offshore wind in the Great Lakes
Karpinski said that switching off the turbines all night for eight months a year would cost the project 40 percent of its forecast revenue for an unknown period of time.
“There’s no question they knew how serious we thought that condition was — you could not mistake that,” Karpinski said. “They knew we thought it was a project-killer. So they put it back in to kill the project, is our conclusion.”
“I’m afraid this could be the end,” he said. “It’s a sad day for renewable energy in Ohio. Personally, it’s a huge disappointment after working so hard and long to try to make something like this happen.”
Karpinski said Icebreaker’s demise is a blow to offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, a region with a number of major population centers including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and, on the Canadian side, Toronto.
"Certainly no one’s going to come to Ohio soon after the way this project was treated," he said.