The offshore wind industry is on the verge of a boom in coastal states along the Atlantic. Some believe the same boom could have similar implications for the Great Lakes.
In 2007 and again in 2010, then-state Rep. John Hornaman proposed placing wind turbines on Lake Erie.
Hornaman, an Erie Democrat who represented the 3rd Legislative District, had pitched the clean energy alternative as a way to create jobs, saying at the time that it presented a "huge" opportunity for the region. His bills passed the House but never came up for a vote in the state Senate.
"There isn't one offshore wind turbine in America," Hornaman told the Erie Times-News in October 2010.
Today, only one offshore wind project exists in the United States, but it's not on Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes.
That will soon change.
Atlantic coastal states have rolled out ambitious plans over the last two years to capitalize on what's been called an offshore wind energy boom. New York state wants to achieve 800 megawatts of offshore wind contracts. New Jersey is soliciting bids for 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind energy production and Massachusetts plans to have 1,600 megawatts online by 2027, according to reports. A study by research firm Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables forecasts 23 gigawatts of new wind energy production in the United States over the next two years.
In Ohio, an offshore wind energy pilot project recently received a key construction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after more than two years of review. And a review of the project by the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers found it would have no significant impact on the environment.
Known as Icebreaker Wind, the project would be the first freshwater energy installation in North America and, officials say, serve as the catalyst for future offshore wind energy projects in the Great Lakes.
"The vision has always been that following this project — assuming everything works as planned and as demonstrated — that there could be a lot of wind power on the lakes," said David Karpinski, vice president of operations for LEEDCo.
Erie County hopes to be a player in the industry.
In 2015, it became a member of LEEDCo. And Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper currently sits on LEEDCo.'s board. LEEDCo. officials have made presentations in Erie about the Icebreaker Wind project and have held supply-chain meetings here, too. Dahlkemper has been a proponent of wind energy, citing, among other benefits, the opportunity it could present for manufacturers who want to be part of that supply chain. The study by Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables notes that, despite its forecast, more than $2 billion in potential revenue could be disrupted by a "bottleneck" in the supply chain for wind turbine components.
"We're hoping they can get that initial project off of Cleveland done," Dahlkemper said. "That will be the project that is needed to spur further offshore wind development not only in Ohio but all across Lake Erie.
"There's a great opportunity for our businesses to play a part in the supply chain," she said. "Once that initial project moves forward and then subsequent projects, it could be a huge positive for all sorts of industries in Erie County. One of them is a no-brainer, Donjon Shipbuilding & Repair. They've already been involved in the (Icebreaker) project."
Rick Hammer, assistant general manager for Donjon, said the company has met with LEEDCo. officials multiple times about building the foundations for the turbines and providing barges and crane vessels to transport and install the equipment. The project presents multiple opportunities, he said.
The first offshore wind project in the United States was in the Atlantic Ocean off of Block Island, Rhode Island, in 2016. The project brought a tailwind to an industry that had yet to take off.
"After that went live you really saw the East Coast projects explode," Karpinski said. "There had been some leases auctioned off by the Department of the Interior and there was a lot of interest, but in terms of real activity, there wasn't much happening. Once Block Island went live it was a different story. Now you have on the East Coast what amounts to $70 billion worth of projects in the works. They're all in different stages. Some are in the early stages, some are approaching construction.
"We really hope to see that happen in the Great Lakes," he added. "We see Icebreaker as a corollary to Block Island, which ... showed what's possible."
Karpinski also said project costs have come down dramatically — about 70 percent — in the past seven years.
State Rep. Curt Sonney, R-4th Dist., picked up Hornaman's legislation for offshore wind development on Lake Erie after Hornaman left office. He has introduced the Lake Erie Energy Development Act in every session of the General Assembly since. The latest introduction of the bill came on March 1. It was referred to the House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy, where Sonney expects it will stay.
"I don't think that it's gotten any traction yet," Sonney said last week.
The legislation calls for utility companies to pay a 2 percent royalty on gross revenue from energy sales into a new fund. A fifth of the proceeds would be distributed to Erie County. All 77 miles of Lake Erie coastline is in Erie County.
The turbines would, according to the bill, be "concentrated in the central and western portion of Lake Erie." Development would be avoided in nearshore areas, in shipping lanes or where migratory birds are concentrated.
"The wind is the strongest in the middle of the lake. It just so happens that the land under the water is suitable for the construction of (wind turbines). And it's very obviously just from what happened in North East Township that people don't want them in their back yards," said Sonney, referring to the pushback from North East residents that prompted Pioneer Green Energy to shelve plans for the region's first commercial wind farm in 2015. "To me, they just make sense out in the lake."
State Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-1st Dist., is a co-sponsor of the Lake Erie Energy Development Act and is one of Gov. Tom Wolf's appointees to the Great Lakes Commission. He said proponents of the bill were close to making progress about six years ago, but talks eventually came to a standstill. He expects the issue of offshore wind energy production to be a topic of conversation when the Great Lakes Commission meets again in May.
Sonney said there had been a lot of talk in Pennsylvania about tapping into renewable sources of energy like wind, solar and hydropower a decade and a half ago. Those discussions at the government level were spurred in large part by the 2004 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards under then-Gov. Ed Rendell, he said.
Since 2000, 27 commercial wind farms have opened in the state. The 24 currently in operation generate more than 1,300 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 350,000 homes, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Those farms are located exclusively in the south-central and northeastern portions of the state, in the Allegheny Mountain and Appalachian Mountain regions, according to the Saint Francis University Institute for Energy.
Still, he said it's important to have legislation ready for when the industry "comes knocking on the door."
"If we see one of our neighboring states actually begin construction," Sonney said, "then I think that the volume of interest will pick up greatly."
Matthew Rink can be reached at 870-1884 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ETNrink.