Cohocton Wind Watch: Plans for offshore wind farms sputter
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Monday, April 18, 2011

Plans for offshore wind farms sputter

As New York Power Authority officials near a decision point for their Great Lakes offshore wind-farm plans, they find themselves almost alone in their pursuit: Nearly all the other freshwater offshore wind projects in North America have stalled or died.

Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the other three Great Lakes are among the windiest spots in the eastern half of the continent, and in recent years wind-energy developers publicized proposals for a dozen or more large wind farms for the lakes' waters.

Today, none of those large-scale proposals are active, a circumstance that in some cases is attributed to fierce public opposition. Two months ago the Canadian province of Ontario, which had been promoting wind energy and considering development of roughly 1,000 turbines in lakes Erie and Ontario, terminated or suspended all offshore projects.

Only one small pilot project, in the waters of Lake Erie near Cleveland, is moving forward.

The sudden declaration of an offshore wind moratorium in Ontario was "a huge blow to offshore development in not only Canada but in the U.S. as well," said Alan Isselhard, an outspoken opponent of the power authority's plan.

"But I don't feel NYPA will be intimidated ... by what's happened anywhere else," said Isselhard, who lives on the Lake Ontario shoreline in Wayne County. "They have unlimited public money at their disposal to go forward."

Indeed, the authority — an independent arm of state government based in Westchester County — is pressing ahead eagerly, hoping to be the first offshore wind project in the Great Lakes. At an offshore wind conference in Henrietta on Wednesday, authority spokesman Louis Paonessa said NYPA was "very close" to announcing a way forward.

Since last June, authority officials have been reviewing five private-sector proposals for offshore wind farms in the New York waters of Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. Though officials have refused to release any details about the proposals, each of them likely calls for construction of dozens of huge electricity-generating turbines a few miles off shore.

The authority, which provides electricity to hundreds of New York government entities, businesses and institutions, will select one or more proposals, probably in the next two months, Paonessa said. The authority plans to support the project financially by signing a long-term power-purchase deal with the developer.

Paonessa said the authority will pay a premium price for offshore power, but that "it may not look so high in 20 years."

The offshore wind conference, held at Rochester Institute of Technology and sponsored by the Pace Energy and Climate Center and two other groups, brought together a dozen experts in the field. Some spoke to about 30 conferees about regulatory and legal issues, others about technical challenges.

And numerous speakers cited the potential of wind turbines in the breezy Great Lakes to generate a considerable portion of the electricity used in eastern North America.
Yet, as one speaker noted, there are 1,100 offshore wind turbines in Europe but not a single one in North America.

What's happened, said Terry Yonker, the keynote speaker at the conference, is that planned Great Lakes projects have stalled for several reasons.

"Some of the projects were ahead of the science," said Yonker, a Niagara County marine avian consultant who is co-chair of the Great Lakes Wind Consortium. More study is needed, for example, of the impact on birds, bats and fish.

Then there is public opposition, which he believes is often driven by concern about turbines' impact on the view from shore.

"I don't want to give a lot of credit to the opposition, but when you're dealing with public agencies and political entities, they've obviously got their nose out there in the wind," Yonker said. "Clearly, the opposition in Ontario was raising a number of environmental and viewshed questions that were beginning to mount up."

Many observers say Ontario's Liberal Party leadership pulled the plug on a number of large offshore proposals in anticipation of provincial elections scheduled for October.

"I think it was politically driven. It was a very wise decision on their part," said Sherri Lange, founding director of Toronto Wind Action, which fought a proposed wind farm in Lake Ontario off eastern metro Toronto.

An offshore wind project in Lake Michigan, originally cast as a multibillion dollar deal that would have been at least double the size of anything the New York Power Authority envisions, was first scaled back and then abandoned.

Richard Stuebi, president of the newly formed Coalition for Great Lakes Offshore Wind in suburban Cleveland, said that project was just too big. "I think that scared a lot of constituencies, and set in place a certain amount of opposition. I'm not sure that was the best path forward," he said.

Two Michigan state legislators there recently introduced a bill to ban outright any wind development in that state's waters.

Stuebi's coalition grew out of the one project that seems to be advancing — a five-turbine pilot project off of Cleveland's Lake Erie shoreline. Advanced by the nonprofit Lake Erie Development Corp., the project has signed up strategic partners and executed options to lease state-owned lake bottomland to site the turbines.

Testing of that bottomland is to take place this summer. Because Lake Erie is relatively shallow, the turbines can be placed at least seven miles offshore, minimizing visual impact. The next step is negotiating a power-purchase agreement, needed to arrange financing. Lorry Wagner, the corporation's president, said the project is progressing because it was community-driven, has tried to be open and is starting small.

"This first project is, for a lot of reasons, more readily doable than the larger projects," Wagner said.

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