Credit: Andy Stormonth-Darling / Creative Commons

The Ohio Power Siting Board says it may reconsider a ruling that developers say would effectively kill the state’s first offshore wind project

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Sen. Sandra Williams’ party affiliation.

The fate of a proposed 20.7-megawatt Icebreaker wind farm in Lake Erie is headed for a final ruling by the Ohio Power Siting Board in September after the board’s chair was confronted by state lawmakers at a meeting last week.

The project, worth an estimated $250 million to the local economy, would be the first freshwater wind farm in the nation. Developers say a May permitting decision by the siting board potentially requiring extensive shutdowns to protect wildlife will effectively kill the project.

Power Siting Board Chair Samuel Randazzo — facing questions at the board’s Aug. 27 meeting from two state lawmakers who sit on the siting board — said he hoped to have an order prepared for a vote at the board’s September meeting, though it isn’t yet clear what impact it would have on the May decision.

State Rep. Jeffrey Crossman and State Sen. Sandra Williams, Democrats representing greater Cleveland, interjected questions about the fate of Icebreaker before other business could begin.

Crossman argued that in light of the recent indictment of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder on a federal racketeering charge in connection with the passage of a bill to subsidize two Ohio nuclear plants, the siting board’s decision about the Icebreaker project should be transparent. 

“I think we owe it to the public to make sure that decisions that are coming out of this board and of the legislature are fully transparent and that we understand fully how decisions are being made and [are] certainly in the best interest of the public,” he said at the start of the meeting.

Randazzo, a longtime critic of renewable energy, has been criticized for what some regard as overly stringent reviews of solar and wind projects since his 2019 appointment.

The siting board had approved the Icebreaker project in May without Randazzo mentioning that deep in the 111-page permit was language allowing the state to order the turbines to shut down at night for eight months out of the year if it decides that sophisticated radar and bird collision detection systems are not adequate or if the wind farm kills more than 21 birds in 24 hours. Neither Crossman nor Williams were aware of the provision. They are non-voting members. 

Williams demanded that Randazzo explain why she and her staff did not receive the documents for the May vote until only hours before the meeting. “That is not the norm. That has not been the process since I have been on the board,” she said, “especially with such a large and significant document.”

Randazzo said he “could not agree more” with Crossman that the process should be transparent. He apologized to Williams if she had not received the order in May well before the meeting.  “We circulated the decision to board members, I believe, well in advance,” he said.

Williams noted that she and Crossman were among the 32 Northeast Ohio lawmakers who had written directly to Randazzo in July objecting to the overnight shutdown requirement and asking the board to take another look at the decision.

“We have reviewed the facts in the case, and we remain puzzled the Board would re-insert the evening Shutdown Order that its own technical staff had determined was not necessary to meet the statutory standard of “minimum adverse impact,” the letter stated in part.

The siting board’s technical staff had previously insisted that the turbines not operate at night for 10 months of the year to protect migrating birds.

In response, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., Icebreaker’s developer, had agreed to install sophisticated radar at the site as well as equip the turbines with high-tech sensors capable of detecting the collision of a single bird with a turbine. 

For that reason, the inclusion of a potential nighttime shutdown in the May permit surprised LEEDCo, which called it a “poison pill” making the project impossible to finance.  That’s about the time state lawmakers from the region got involved.

Williams also asked Randazzo why the lawmakers had heard nothing from him except that the letter would be placed in the public file of the case, a response she called “simply not sufficient.” 

Randazzo countered that the board often receives letters from lawmakers or numbers of lawmakers and that those letters are “not part of the evidentiary record” but are posted in a public comment section of the case so that the public is aware “in the interest of being transparent.” More than 1,000 public comments have been made in the Icebreaker case, including one filed Friday in support of the project from Cleveland City Council.

The siting board’s administrative staff agreed in July that it would reconsider the order as LEEDCo had asked as well as request for reconsideration from others, including opponents who want the project flatly denied because of possible bird and bat kills.

“We have people who have identified issues that we have to resolve based upon allegations of error that they believe the board made in issuing the initial decision,” Randazzo told Williams, “and that’s what we will take up, I hope, at the next board meeting.”

John Funk is a Cleveland-based journalist who has written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, and Cincinnati Post.