By Julian Spector
August 7, 2018 - Coal company Murray Energy has been quietly funding opposition to a Lake Erie offshore wind project.
The $126 million, six-turbine Icebreaker Wind project has been undergoing regulatory analysis at the Ohio Power Siting Board. Ohio-based Murray Energy has not officially entered the decision-making process, but has funded legal representation and consulting for other opponents of the wind farm.
The project developer, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., provided evidence to state regulators last week of Murray Energy's involvement. The coal giant confirmed its involvement in an article published Sunday by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Spokesperson Cody Nett framed the company’s behind-the-scenes involvement as a force for transparency.
“Murray Energy is pleased that its outside counsel...can assist the Bratenahl residents to prevent Icebreaker from steam-rolling this project through the Ohio Power Siting Board certification process without the public scrutiny and opposition that it deserves," Nett told the publication.
The reporting did not indicate that Murray had broken any laws with its intervention.
Power plant siting applications routinely give stakeholders a chance to air their grievances with a proposal, but the Ohio case reveals a new type of challenge that wind developers must overcome to expand U.S. offshore wind beyond the single project operating today.
Specifically, the coal company paid for legal representation of two residents of the lakefront community of Bratenahl who opposed the wind project in the siting process.
Both residents testified that they did not pay the legal fees themselves, and that they did not know Murray was covering their legal expenses, The Plain Dealer reported. Murray Energy also paid a consultant $430 an hour to produce a report on the wind plant’s economic viability.
CEO Robert Murray has played an active role in recent debates over the direction of the U.S. electricity mix. He has advocated for federal action to prevent further coal plant closures, saying recently that if the trend continues, “people are going to die in the dark.”
By supplying resources to unaffiliated parties, Murray might have influenced the policy outcome without the public knowing of its involvement. Now that the information is out in the open, it reveals Murray's flexibility in pursuing energy policy that keeps coal front and center.
Compared to the 20,000 megawatts of coal capacity Murray has warned could close in the next five years, the Icebreaker project looks vanishingly small.
If approved, it will insert six 3.45-megawatt turbines into Lake Erie eight miles north of Cleveland, interconnected to a substation onshore. The plant would begin operation in the early 2020s.
“Lake Erie is an ideal location for offshore wind, with ample available interconnect capacity, large load centers along the coast, growing energy demand due to existing plant retirements, a strong manufacturing base and limited other sources of renewable energy,” the project website says.
A project as small as Icebreaker doesn’t pose a threat to Murray’s coal empire; coal supplied 58 percent of Ohio’s net electricity generation in 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration.
If this diminutive demonstration project proves successful, though, it will lay the groundwork for more freshwater offshore wind to come. The U.S. has only completed one offshore wind farm to date, the 30-megawatt Block Island installation in Rhode Island.
A change is on its way. The U.S. is on track to deploy a cumulative 2.3 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2026, according to wind research firm MAKE Consulting.
Cheap wind generation, along with other factors like abundant natural gas, exerts downward pressure on wholesale prices that can make coal plants less economical to operate.
Murray’s relatively low-cost intervention could, at best, help delay the arrival of that industry in Ohio.
It remains to be seen how the revelation about the coal company’s involvement will affect the efficacy of the effort. In a statement to The Plain Dealer, Murray’s spokesperson suggested the company was defending the public good from the profit-motivated activities of the wind developer.
“That for-profit entity is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers and other hired minions in its attempt to foist this wrongheaded, disastrous project on the people of Ohio,” Nett wrote.
Murray Energy would also fit the description of a for-profit entity hiring lawyers to influence policy.
Siting debates have sparked heated opposition in the past. As more wind developers work toward the certification of large projects, they'll have reason to ask how much of the heat they face is fueled by coal.