By Josh Bender
America’s first freshwater offshore wind farm will soon stand in Lake Erie eight miles from Cleveland.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $40 million to the project’s developers, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp, The project is only the second offshore wind farm in the country.
Construction of six wind turbines within a two-mile stretch begins in the summer of 2018. It will operate by the end of that year, said David Karpinski, the corporation’s vice president of operations.
The turbines stand 80 meters tall and will produce enough energy to power 6,000 homes, he said.
The project will demonstrate the potential for offshore wind farming in the Great Lakes, as it will only produce a small fraction of what a typical coal or nuclear plant can produce, he said.
The project is the region’s logical next step in the growth of renewable energy, he said. The flat land west of the city lacks sufficient wind; the hilly terrain eastward makes wind farming difficult.
The project was inspired by the success enjoyed by offshore wind farms in Europe, where the industry has been growing for the past 25 years, Karpinski said.
Construction, transport and manufacturing for the project will create 500 jobs, he said. A smaller, long-term workforce will maintain the wind farm, but its size is yet to be determined.
Ecotourism and maintenance will create more long-term jobs for Clevelanders, said Trish Demeter, managing director of energy programs for the Ohio Environmental Council, a Columbus-based environmental lobby.
“There is a lot of potential for innovation surrounding this project,” she said. “We will be the first in the water.”
There are no active plans for other offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes but that will change, said John Sarver, a board member of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a Lansing, Michigan-based green energy advocacy group.
But there are other challenges elsewhere.
Unlike shallow Lake Erie, the greater depth of the other Great Lakes necessitates expensive floating wind turbines, he said. The price tag makes offshore wind turbines a tough sell for the other lakes.
But technological advances will change that, Sarver said.
Norwegian energy giant Statoil already uses floating turbines, and University of Maine researchers are testing a floating turbine prototype to see if it is feasible to bring here, he said.
The project’s status as the first freshwater offshore wind farm brings unique challenges and benefits, Karpinski said. While engineers must account for icy Midwestern winters, they don’t have to worry about the corrosive salt and punishingly high waves that can affect an ocean-based farm.
The first American offshore wind farm is being built this summer off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, he said.
The Cleveland farm’s distance from areas heavily populated by people and wildlife reduces some risk. Fewer of both are likely to be bothered by noise. Birds and bats are less likely to be caught in the spinning turbines, Demeter said. However some risk to wildlife remains.
“There is no development without environmental impact, and the tradeoff here is a good one,” she said.
The safety risks posed to the relatively few birds living near the farms are outweighed by the environmental benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, Karpinski said.