Clean Air Council

Erie Wind

When people think of renewable energy in Pennsylvania, offshore wind probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But Pennsylvania isn’t a land-locked state – Erie County in the far Northwest corner of the state has almost 50 miles of shoreline and control over 759 square miles of Lake Erie. Not only is Lake Erie close to major sources of energy consumption (Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh), but its shallow eastern basin and strong winds make it an ideal site for offshore-wind development.

That’s why the Clean Air Council helped found the Northwest Pennsylvania Green Economy Task Force (NWPAGE) to advocate for this and other green projects in the region. In particular, the Council and NWPAGE are cooperating on a campaign aimed at bringing 300 MW of offshore-wind online by 2022. With the recent announcement of an “icebreaker” 18-MW project in the Ohio portion of the lake, Lake Erie is beginning to take shape as an important source of clean, renewable power.

Offshore Wind

Offshore wind energy is booming right now. In 2015 alone global offshore wind capacity increased 26% to 11,102 MW. While 91% of that is in European waters, 0% of it is in American waters. America has lagged behind because it costs more to build and maintain offshore wind than onshore wind, and America has more favorable conditions for onshore wind development than Europe.

But despite these differences, things are starting to change. Projects are under construction off the coasts of Rhode Island and New Jersey, with more planned around the country. Even though Pennsylvania is a leader in wind power (it ranks 16th in overall installed wind power capacity in the US), our portion of Lake Erie remains totally undeveloped. In 2010, the Clean Air Council helped found NWPAGE to promote the growth of a green economy in Northwest PA, and development on Lake Erie has been a major focus.

Why Lake Erie?

Most offshore wind development is in the ocean, and Lake Erie presents a number of unique benefits. The first major benefit is Lake Erie’s location. Electricity gets lost in transit, so it’s important to not transport power too far from where it’s generated. Lake Erie is an ideal location from this perspective as there is a dense population immediately around the lake and major cities nearby (like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh). Second, Lake Erie is freshwater, while oceans are saltwater. Lower salt levels make the water less corrosive, meaning the equipment will last longer and require less maintenance. Lastly, the water in Lake Erie is far calmer than the ocean, so the foundations for the equipment won’t have to be as complex as for ocean-based offshore wind.

Of course, Lake Erie presents some distinct drawbacks, too. For example, while the lower salt content means the equipment will require less maintenance, it also means the water freezes in the winter. Designers have to take this into consideration and find ways to protect the equipment. On balance, though, the benefits to building in Lake Erie far outweigh the drawbacks.

What progress has been made?

Since its founding in 2015, NWPAGE has taken a number of steps to build grassroots support for offshore wind in Lake Erie. One of the main drivers have been quarterly lectures on sustainability (past topics have included the health effects of coal, algae blooms in the Great Lakes, and offshore wind in general). Additionally, NWPAGE has taken part in community development and planning initiatives like Emerge 2040 and Erie Vital Signs to help shape the vision for how Erie will develop as a region in the coming years.

The most significant development, though, has been the announcement of the Icebreaker wind farm as the first wind farm in Lake Erie. As the name implies, the Icebreaker project is meant to get things going and show the feasibility of such development in the lake. As such, the farm will be on the somewhat smaller side, comprised of six 3-MW wind turbines made by Siemens. The Icebreaker farm will be sited in Ohio’s waters, and Cleveland will receive the power it produces.

What does the future look like?

Offshore wind is coming to America, the real question is when. The US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy estimates that America holds the potential to access over 4,000 GW of offshore wind power (that’s nearly four times the generating capacity of all US power plants now). The costs to produce fossil fuels will continue to rise, and the costs for renewables will continue to decline. Eventually, we’ll tap into this massive source of clean power.

Pennsylvania stands to benefit greatly when this happens. There are a number of coal-fired power plants around the shores of Lake Erie, and offshore wind would help reduce the demand for those plants’ dirty power. Not only would this have significant effects on the region’s public health, but it would also serve as another step towards reducing the CO2 emissions that are warming our planet.

The Clean Air Council and NWPAGE want to make this happen sooner rather than later. By continuing public discussions to build grassroots support, staying in touch with politicians and local business leaders, and remaining involved in Erie’s development plans, we hope to take advantage of this valuable resource as soon as possible.

For more information, or to get involved, please email Joy Knapp at jknapp@cleanair.org.

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