The Great Lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people and support 311,000 jobs in tourism, recreation and transportation. But climate advocates and energy developers throughout the region think the lakes can offer something more: clean energy. 

Right now, most wind turbines are operating in plains, coastal areas and mountainous regions — places where the winds blow consistently. But in the last several decades, a new method of harnessing wind energy has been growing, first in Europe, and now, slowly, in the U.S.: offshore wind, where turbines are placed in oceans or lakes in order to take advantage of the stronger and more consistent winds that blow over water. So far, offshore wind turbines have almost exclusively been built in marine environments

According to a 2021 study, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of the Great Lakes states excluding New York — have the technical potential to produce 344 terra watt-hours (TWh) of electricity from offshore wind, which is nearly half the total amount of energy these seven states used in 2019. Michigan could generate 197 percent of its 2019 electricity use through offshore wind, while Wisconsin and Ohio could generate 70 and 42 percent, respectively. Experts say these changes could drastically decarbonize electricity generation throughout the region; as of 2019, every Great Lakes state relied primarily on coal or natural gas for electricity generation with the exception of Illinois, which relies heavily on nuclear energy

Annual average U.S. land-based and offshore wind speed at 100m above the surface. Coastal areas — including the Great Lakes — have consistently higher annual average wind speeds than land areas over the Midwest. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

States like Ohio, New York and Illinois are pursuing offshore wind as a path to decarbonization by launching research and development initiatives that could harness the Great Lakes’ renewable wind resources for electricity generation.

Ohio’s Plans for Offshore Wind Development

Ohio is currently leading the Great Lakes states in the push for offshore development with the Icebreaker Wind Project, a demonstration project that aims to build six wind turbines in Lake Erie eight miles off the coast of Cleveland. Led by the non-profit Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo), it’s the most advanced offshore wind project in the region and would be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America.

“It’s a really exciting thing for the city of Cleveland and for Ohio to be really groundbreaking on potential new technology that will help us fight against climate change,” Miranda Leppla, the vice president of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, said. “It’s […] going to put Ohio on the map as a leader in renewable energy technologies.”

The turbines would be secured to the lake floor with Mono Bucket foundations, technology that eliminates the need for pile-driving and dredging that can disturb the lake floor during turbine installation.

LEEDCo plans to build six wind turbines off the coast of Cleveland, OH. The turbines would connect to the Cleveland Public Power transmission system, providing renewable electricity to residents. Image courtesy of LEEDCo.

Leppla said that on top of reducing carbon emissions, Icebreaker would also provide economic benefits to Ohio, mitigating job losses caused by deindustrialization and the COVID-19 pandemic. LEEDCo estimates that Icebreaker will create 500 jobs during construction as well as $253 million of economic impact over the project’s lifetime. 

Despite excitement from climate advocacy groups and renewable energy developers, offshore wind development will need to innovate around some unique challenges posed by the Great Lakes. Since freshwater freezes at lower temperatures than saltwater, turbines in the Great Lakes will need to be able to withstand ice floes and freezing. Furthermore, large areas of the Great Lakes are too deep for fixed-bottom turbine technology — like the suction bucket monopiles Icebreaker will use — which is why some researchers are looking at building floating wind turbines in deeper parts of the Great Lakes where, according to the National Offshore Wind Research & Development Consortium, an additional 700 TWh of electricity could be generated per year. 

Some floating wind turbines have been successfully built in Scotland and Norway, but researchers say that current floating turbine technology cannot withstand the ice that forms on the Great Lakes. So, while fixed-bottom technology will likely dominate early offshore wind projects like Icebreaker, advocates hope to see future breakthroughs in floating turbine technologies.

There are several different designs for both fixed-bottom and floating wind turbines, although more research will be required in order to build floating wind turbines that can withstand ice floes in the Great Lakes. Top image courtesy of Windpower Engineering and Development. Bottom image courtesy of 2H Offshore.

Conservation vs. Climate

Not all challenges to offshore wind in the Great Lakes are technological. Some conservationist groups oppose Icebreaker out of concern that collisions with offshore turbines could kill birds and bats as they migrate and forage over the water, putting local ecosystems and even endangered species at risk. Portions of Lake Erie are designated as “important bird areas” by the National Audubon Society, since large numbers of birds stop along Lake Erie’s shores when migrating between Canada and Ohio. 

Mark Shieldcastle, the research director at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), an Ohio-based bird conservation group, said major bird migration flyways pass through Lake Erie, meaning that at certain times of the year, the region is a hotspot for migratory birds, some of which are vulnerable or endangered.

The Mississippi and Atlantic bird migration flyways pass through Lake Erie, making the area important for conservation of potentially vulnerable and endangered bird species including piping plovers, common loons and red-breasted mergansers. Image courtesy of Chirp Nature Center.

There’s less research regarding bat migration over Lake Erie, but Shieldcastle said that conserving bat populations is also extremely important for ecosystems in the area; bat populations throughout North America have declined in recent years due to white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by an invasive fungus that has killed over 90 percent of three different bat species. If bat populations were significantly harmed by offshore wind development, it could be ecologically devastating.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published an environmental impact assessment, part of which examined the ways that Icebreaker could impact birds and bats in Lake Erie. The assessment used weather radar as well as visual and acoustic surveys, finding that bird and bat densities are significantly lower several miles off of the shoreline, and that the majority of migration that does occur happens at night. 

In May 2020, the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) approved the Icebreaker Project on the condition that LEEDCo “feather” the turbines — a way of stopping them — at night for eight months of the year in order to protect birds and bats. But developers said that the requirement would render Icebreaker economically unworkable and representatives of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was overly cautious. In response, the OPSB voted to remove the requirement in September 2020.

Shieldcastle disputed several of the DOE assessment’s findings, arguing that more research needs to be done to examine the altitudes at which birds and bats fly over the lake, the way that different weather patterns such as storms impact flight patterns, and the possibility that turbines could potentially attract waterfowl during the winter months by creating ice leads — breaks in the ice surrounding the base of the turbines — which could increase the risk of collisions. Although he isn’t opposed to all wind energy development, Shieldcastle said he thinks Lake Erie is probably too ecologically sensitive for it.

Lake Erie is an important area for bird migration. Large percentages of the North American red-breasted merganser population arrive at Lake Erie in the fall and spring, making the species especially vulnerable to changes on the lake. Image courtesy of the National Audubon Society.

“We do not believe that everything else [should be] collateral damage to try to fix climate change,” Shieldcastle said. “There’s no question that the problem is real. But […] we think we just have to be wise about how we best get at the real questions.”

Sandy Bihn, the executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, said she would like the DOE to conduct a full environmental impact statement for Icebreaker. Environmental impact statements are a more comprehensive and rigorous form of environmental inquiry than the environmental assessment the DOE published in 2018. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, they’re  reserved for projects that are “determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

Leppla said she’s confident that Icebreaker will be an environmentally safe project, however, since it will be required to conduct aerial waterfowl surveys, bat acoustic monitoring surveys, and radar monitoring surveys before and after construction, as well as to comply with collision mitigation and monitoring plans approved by the ODNR and OPSB. She said that since the project would only consist of six turbines, it would provide opportunities for further research into offshore wind’s impacts on birds and bats in the Great Lakes, allowing future development to make adjustments to mitigate harm. 

Leppla also said that climate change poses a far greater ecological threat than wind turbines. In 2019, the National Audubon Society released a study which found that up to two-thirds of North American bird species could be at risk of extinction without climate change mitigation. According to the study, in Ohio alone, 19 bird species would be highly vulnerable and 48 would be moderately vulnerable with three degrees of warming. 

Opposition to Great Lakes wind, however, hasn’t been limited to conservation groups like the BSBO. In Ohio, some lakefront landowners have expressed concerns over the effects offshore wind turbines would have on unobstructed views of the lake, and a local coal company provided funding for residents’ efforts to block Icebreaker. Overcoming that challenge may be Icebreaker’s final obstacle.

A simulated image shows what the Icebreaker Project’s wind turbines would look like from the shore. Image courtesy of LEEDCo.

“While the project has been approved, it has been appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court by […] two residents,” Leppla said. “We’re expecting those oral arguments to be scheduled hopefully late this year or as late as early next year. So once that goes through and we get a ruling on that, we expect the project to move forward.”

The Other Side of Lake Erie: New York State’s Push for Offshore Wind Research

As Icebreaker navigates challenges from landowners, fossil fuel companies and some conservationists, offshore wind development is building momentum on the east side of Lake Erie. In 2020, the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) started work on the Great Lakes Wind Feasibility Study, which aims to examine a wide range of contingencies for offshore wind development in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, including physical features of the lakes, different types of turbine models, legal issues surrounding development, technological challenges, and the economic and environmental impacts of offshore wind development. 

At a public webinar held on Aug. 10, Sherryl Huber, the project manager for offshore wind at NYSERDA, said that the study should be finished by the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. Depending on its results, offshore wind development could follow. 

The Block Island Wind Farm, which began operating off the coast of Rhode Island in 2016, was the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Developers and researchers in New York and Ohio are considering building the first freshwater wind farm in the U.S. in Lake Erie. Image courtesy of Engineering News-Record.

Ellen Banks, the conservation chair of the Sierra Club Atlantic chapter, said she has spoken with representatives from Diamond Offshore Wind, a development group that’s looking into building wind turbines in the lakes off the coast of New York. She said that the Sierra Club supports offshore wind development as an important path toward cutting carbon emissions and fighting climate change. As they wait for NYSERDA’s study to wrap up, Banks said climate advocates and renewable energy developers are considering next steps.

“[Developers] are looking toward NYSERDA,” Banks said. “[NYSERDA is] probably going to be announcing a policy shortly, and then there will be a request for proposals. So [developers] are not really planning anything actively right now. As far as what they told us, but they are hoping to be able to get a proposal in for a demonstration project.” 

Banks said that a demonstration project in New York would likely be similar to the Icebreaker Project in Ohio, consisting of a small number of turbines several miles off the coast, likely near Buffalo, NY. 

Beyond Lake Erie: Illinois Considers Offshore Wind Development in Lake Michigan

As Icebreaker navigates Ohio’s legal system and NYSERDA approaches the end of its feasibility study, Illinois is also beginning to consider offshore wind development in Lake Michigan. In 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker established an Offshore Wind Energy Economic Development Task Force to examine economic and legal challenges to offshore wind development in the state. 

Aaron Stein, a member of the task force, said via email that they haven’t been able to meet yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jack Darin, a member of Gov. Pritzker’s task force and the director of the Sierra Club Illinois chapter, said he expects the task force to focus on financing and developing viable business models for offshore wind when they do meet.

“We’re a state that has a deregulated electricity market, so […] there are no guaranteed customers for any form of generation,” he said, referring to the fact that electricity providers compete for customers in states with deregulated markets. “The [business] models for an offshore wind project will be new. Will the power go to large customers like companies or institutions, or will it be aggregated individual customers, like from municipalities […] or a mix of all these things?”

Darin also said that the Sierra Club cares about the potential impacts offshore wind could have on Lake Michigan’s birds, bats and aquatic ecosystems, and supports further research and investment regarding mitigation measures. 

“We need to do this with monitoring and studies to make sure that we’re doing this in ways that will help the lakes and not hurt them,” Darin said.

On top of conservation concerns, Illinois’s task force will likely examine potential locations for development. Offshore wind farms have transmission lines that need to be connected to an onshore port in order to deliver the power they generate, a design factor that will likely influence where development in Illinois takes place. Darin said there are several lakefront locations in Illinois — one in southeast Chicago and the other in Waukegan — with retired or retiring coal plants, and he said that type of infrastructure could be repurposed for the ports and transmission lines required by offshore wind farms. 

Plans for an offshore wind port in New Jersey. Offshore wind farms deliver electricity to onshore ports via transmission lines. Image courtesy of Offshore WIND.

Given existing infrastructure, as well as increasing political will to decarbonize Illinois’s electricity sector, Darin said he expects offshore wind projects to move forward in the coming years. He said, however, that there will likely be a limited number of onshore ports given the cost of construction. So, if Illinois — or Ohio or New York — creates a functioning port for offshore wind early enough, Darin said that state has the potential to assume lake-wide leadership.

“We’re pretty confident that in the decades to come, there will be wind energy production on all of the Great Lakes, but […] it’s unlikely that you’re going to have lots of these ports developed around the Great Lakes,” Darin said. “[We’ll] probably have a few [ports] that get a lot of activity for projects […] So Illinois has the potential to basically assume the leadership in offshore wind development, [and] not just in the waters of our state.”

States like Illinois, New York and Ohio are all looking to become renewable energy leaders in the Great Lakes region, whether through port development, research, demonstration projects or a combination of the three. Although some conservationists worry about the ecological impacts of offshore wind development, for climate advocates, renewable energy expansion can’t come fast enough; according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans need to stop emitting carbon dioxide extremely quickly in order to avoid devastating levels of heating. 

“Right now we’re in a climate crisis, and we have an emergency we have to solve,” Leppla said. “We need all hands on deck trying to transition us [away] from fossil fuels as fast as possible.”

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