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An environmental riddle is brewing off the shores of Lake Erie, and its answer is blowing in the wind.

The planned launch of a wind turbine demonstration project seven miles off of Cleveland’s lakeshore in Ohio – the first of its kind on the Great Lakes – has politicians, developers and labor there on board.

That’s a totally different vibe from what took place in Buffalo Niagara in 2009 and 2010, when the New York Power Authority gauged interest in a similar project in lakes Erie and Ontario. Local governments here quickly scuttled the idea after intense political pressure from a well-organized group of local lakeshore residents.

The environmentalist community, meanwhile, still searches for a Solomonic solution to the question of harnessing wind on the Great Lakes.

Can support for coveted renewable energy that reduces reliance on fossil fuels outweigh potential collateral damage to birds, bats and fish – not to mention aesthetic and noise considerations, as well as possible water pollution?

It’s a tough one, but Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group thinks so.

“If we don’t switch from fossil fuels, all the fish in the lake are going to die anyway,” Schneekloth said. “Anything that gets us off of fossil fuels should be tried now.”

Citing a climate change “emergency,” Schneekloth says projects like wind farms in the lakes should be fast-tracked without having them mired down in years of public debate.

Others disagree.

“It could be a disaster,” said Sharen Trembath, a Southtowns resident who leads the area’s annual Great Lakes Beach Sweep and helped spearhead efforts to quash the Power Authority’s plans to install turbines in Lake Erie a couple years ago. “It’s giving up one natural resource for another.”

Added Tom Marks, a local charter boat captain who also opposed the former Power Authority plan: “There are environmental hazards with locating the turbines in the lake.”

Offshore hazards

Here are some of the concerns about offshore wind development, according to Marks, Trembath and the 2010 and 2011 resolutions put forth by Niagara, Erie and Chautauqua county legislatures as well as several lakeshore towns opposing them:

• Disruption of the flight patterns of some migrating birds and some of recently resurgent species, such as bald eagles.

• Interference with boating and fishing.

• Stirring up “a 40-year cap” on toxic sediment in the lake bed left behind from the region’s industrial heyday.

• Potential for damage to the turbines and the lakeshore from fire, electrical shock or other problems from large power cables stretched along the lake bed, and leakage from an oil cartridge that Trembath calls “the size of a bus.”

What’s more, dissenters say, windmills are just not that efficient, don’t create jobs, can only operate when winds reach specific speeds and can be expensive.

And, they add, they’re eye pollution.

“I’ve spent my life taking care of the lake’s environment,” Trembath said. “I don’t want it filled with turbines.”

In Ohio, however, many don’t see it that way.

The Cleveland-based Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. has received support in Northeast Ohio for its “Icebreaker” project, which it says “is a blueprint to position Ohio as the leader in the region.”

The demonstration project calls for six 3-megawatt, American-made wind turbines to be placed offshore of downtown Cleveland, with full operation beginning in 2017. In contrast, Lackawanna’s on-shore “Steel Winds” consists of more than a dozen 2.5-megawatt turbines.

Bolstered with $4 million in startup money from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Cleveland company Thursday launched its “POWER Pledge program” to continue building “local stakeholder support” for the wind farm. About 5,000 supporters in Northeast Ohio have already pledged to buy electricity, at higher prices, from Icebreaker’s offshore farm, said Lorry Wagner, president of the Lake Erie energy company.

“Community engagement and support are critical to our success,” said Wagner, “and the support we have received for the POWER Pledge is very encouraging for the future of offshore wind in the Great Lakes.”

Three of seven wind demonstration projects nationwide – of which Cleveland is one – are scheduled for selection by the DOE next year for an additional $46.7 million award to build out the balance of the offshore project. Either way, however, Wagner said his company has invested time and resources in the belief that offshore wind will happen near Cleveland with or without the extra federal money.

By 2030, Wagner expects that his company could be managing “a few hundred” offshore wind turbines in Lake Erie.

Keystone State wind

Besides Ohio’s plunge into offshore wind power, leaders in Pennsylvania are looking to follow with their own program.

Curtis G. Sonney, a Republican state legislator from Erie County, Pa., introduced the Lake Erie Wind Energy Development Act in the Pennsylvania Legislature earlier this year. It would permit the state to lease areas of the lake bed greater than 25 acres “for the assessment, development, construction and operation of utility-scale offshore wind, solar or kinetic energy generation facilities.”

The bill was referred to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for consideration, where it remains.

It can stay there as far as some Erie-area residents are concerned.

“Sometimes you wish your representatives would simply do nothing instead of coming up with ideas like this,” Paul Crowe on the North East Windmills website he manages in opposition to a proposed wind farm in North East Township, just across the border from Ripley, N.Y.

Crowe suggests Sonney is “swept up in the ‘green energy’ hype” and implores local residents to “pay attention” because “wind developers want turbines everywhere.”

It’s unclear where turbines would be set off the Pennsylvania shore, if developed. However, Sonney’s bill calls for the areas to be “concentrated in the central and western portion of Lake Erie” with the state to “avoid development in near-shore areas” while also avoiding “shipping lanes and ... areas of Lake Erie where migratory birds are concentrated.”

Dangerous for birds

More than 573,000 birds die annually at wind farms across the nation, according to Associated Press reports. Of those, about 83,000 are hawks, falcons and eagles.

Leaders at Buffalo’s chapter of the National Audubon Society, such as Loren H. Smith, its executive director, strike a moderate tone on the issue of offshore wind farms.

Smith pointed out that all energy development has environmental trade-offs. The focus, he said, should be on maximizing conservation and efficiencies while minimizing impacts to wildlife and the environment at large.

As part of the “Atlantic flyway” for migrating birds, which Smith calls “a superhighway in the sky,” scientific study needs to be performed to analyze the effects of wind turbines on birds and other lake ecology, he said.

“We can’t oppose or be for the project because we don’t have an adequate science underpinning,” Smith said when asked about the Ohio proposal and whether a similar model should happen here. “We strongly advocate for the appropriate science-based analysis of the impact on the environment.”

Critics argue that the windmills are hazardous to birds, and Wagner, of the Cleveland energy project, concedes that some may die from collisions with turbines. But, he said, the project is doing all it can to mitigate the impacts the wind towers have on bird life, adding that it will be a net gain when balanced against the damage from power derived from coal plants.

In the United States, Wagner said, “we kill more birds from consuming mercury-laden fish than we’ll ever kill with turbines.”

“The average wind turbine might have killed about two birds per year,” said Wagner, adding that the Cleveland energy company has employed the same “risk assessment” used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine that Ohio’s turbine project might result in the death of a threatened or endangered species “every 20 years.”

Difference of opinion

Wagner discounted critics’ other arguments. Recent innovations in turbines have broadened their ability to capture wind from 6 to 60 mph, and stirring up bottom sediment by placing cables or laying the foundation for the turbines is a small fraction of what is stirred up following a storm on the lake, Wagner said.

As for the view, he said, the Ohio towers will be “tiny little blips on the horizon” from seven miles out.

“If somebody doesn’t like the way they look,” added Wagner, “they’re entitled to their opinion.”

It’s an opinion that Trembath is sticking to.

“The difference between us and what’s going on in Ohio right now is there are no houses near the shore,” said Trembath, acknowledging that she expects to have to gird up for another fight at a to-be-determined date. “It’s not going to go away because there’s so much money involved.”

Power Authority officials, meanwhile, have not indicated any imminent plans to revisit an offshore wind project in Western New York.

Connie M. Cullen, a spokesperson for the Power Authority, said that it decided “not to proceed with plans for an offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes” two years ago because an “evaluation of the proposed project’s economics determined that it would not be fiscally prudent for the Power Authority to commit to the initiative at that time.”

The Power Authority is focusing instead on evaluating a wind project in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern coast of Long Island, where a lease application is being reviewed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Cullen said.

Wagner, who is heading the Ohio project, is bullish on the Empire State for developing offshore wind energy.

“They’re focusing now on the Atlantic because they see it as an easier path,” said Wagner. “Once our project is built, will it change that? It might. It might not.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com