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Pa. House committee passes framework for Lake Erie wind energy industry

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 19, 2024

Legislation that would establish a framework for Pennsylvania to develop a wind energy industry off its Lake Erie coast cleared an early hurdle in the Pennsylvania General Assembly on Tuesday.

House Bill 254 would allow the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to lease tracts of lakebed beneath the surface of Lake Erie for companies to develop grid scale wind turbine electricity generation projects. 

The bill passed out of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in a vote along party lines, with Republican lawmakers in opposition. 

Its advancement to the full House follows Gov. Josh Shapiro’s announcement last week of an energy plan that would increase Pennsylvania’s use of renewable energy to 35% by 2035. Wind energy currently makes up about 1.6% of Pennsylvania’s energy use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the development of offshore wind farms has faced opposition in the United States, including the failure of a pilot project to build a fleet of wind turbines off Cleveland to test the viability of wind generation in icy Great Lakes waters.

Sponsored by state Rep. Robert Merski (D-Erie), the legislation would require leaseholders to pay royalties from the generation of electricity and sale of clean energy credits to be deposited into a special fund to conserve natural resources in Lake Erie.

“H.B. 254 is an important piece of legislation that would help diversify our energy portfolio and be another source of clean energy in Pennsylvania would be a great source of family sustaining jobs for the Erie region,” Merski said during the committee meeting. 

Revenue from the leases would be distributed among the DEP, Erie County, the Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority and county conservation districts in the Lake Erie watershed. 

First introduced by former state John Hornaman (D-Erie) more than a decade ago, the proposed legislation was amended on Tuesday to give the DEP, rather than the state Department of General Services, the authority to seek bids for underwater tracts suitable for wind energy development.

It also expands the bill’s definition of “large-scale energy system” to include wind, solar and kinetic energy systems. Kinetic energy systems capture wave motion to generate electricity.

And the amendment eliminates language setting royalties at 2%, specifying instead that they would be established in lease agreements for the underwater tracts.

Hornaman’s bill passed unanimously in the House in 2010, the last time Democrats had a majority, but was not considered in the state Senate. The legislation was reintroduced by Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) in subsequent sessions but it did not advance beyond the House.

Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean) said he questioned whether the legislation had been fully thought through, given the opposition to development of competing energy sources in Pennsylvania. 

“We have folks in this building, an administration that’s very opposed to leasing state land in some instances, but at the same time, is supportive of wind energy in Lake Erie,” Causer said, noting the amendment introduced by Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) makes significant changes to the bill.

Merski replied that the bill was one he inherited from Sonney and that the language was developed in consultation with labor unions, environmentalists and conservation groups.

In December, the Lake Erie Energy Development Co. announced it was suspending a plan to build six wind turbines eight miles off the coast of Cleveland. Named the Icebreaker Wind Project, Lake Erie Energy partnered with a Norwegian windmill producer and envisioned a wind energy industry there. 

Challenges by bird lovers and a lawsuit funded in part by a coal company delayed the project so long that rising interest rates and construction costs drove the developer away, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.