This week our series Front and Center is looking at whether Great Lakes water could spur economic revival in the nation’s rustbelt. Some communities are pinning their hopes on green energy. In the Cleveland area, politicians and businessmen have been pushing for years to build a wind farm in Lake Erie. But, as WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell reports, the project’s financing is up in the air as Ohio focuses on energy that could generate a lot more jobs.
MITCHELL: I understand the power of Lake Erie wind as soon we’re out past the breakwaters of Cleveland Harbor.
SOUND (steam horn and water splashing)
MITCHELL (on tugboat): The waves make this 74-foot tugboat bob like a rubber toy in a bath tub.
MITCHELL: Before long, I’m sweating and looking for a place to heave. Next to me, though, Bill Mason seems to be enjoying the ride. In fact, he wants to show me a spot with more wind.
BILL MASON (on tugboat): Out beyond us, where we’re headed, is to the crib. We have an anemometer.
MITCHELL: He means ane-MAH-meter.
BILL MASON (on tugboat): It’s been measuring the wind speeds since, I think, 2007. So I know we have good wind….
MITCHELL: Mason doesn’t know all the particulars about wind energy. But, as the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, he knows a lot about Northeast Ohio. Since taking office in 1999, he’s seen about a hundred-thousand manufacturing jobs disappear there.
SOUND (gears change)
MITCHELL: Mason says putting a handful of wind turbines off Cleveland’s shore could spark a revival.
BILL MASON (on tugboat): We have been known as a rustbelt city forever. And this, in itself, can change the city to a green city on the blue lake.
MITCHELL: To promote the wind-farm idea, Mason helped form a quasi-public group that’s held dozens of community meetings. It’s secured an option for nine square miles of the lake. It’s studied possible impacts on wildlife. And it’s begun work on designs and permits. Mason says Cleveland could help build offshore wind farms throughout the Great Lakes.
BILL MASON (on tugboat): We have a deep-water port. We have a rail system that travels right along the lake.
MITCHELL: And Mason says local manufacturers could retool to make everything from transmission cables to ice-resistant blade coating. The wind-farm supporters commissioned a study that found the project could lead to 15,000 new Ohio jobs within two decades. The supply chain could include Lincoln Electric. That company makes welding equipment near Cleveland. It’s also getting a taste of generating wind energy.
SOUND (blades swoosh by)
MITCHELL: This year Lincoln Electric installed a turbine to help power its plant. It’s more than 400 feet tall. On a windy day, the tips of the three blades go 160 miles an hour. But you can’t hear them until you’re right under them.
SOUND (blades swoosh by)
MITCHELL: Lincoln Electric’s Seth Mason takes me up inside the turbine tower.
SETH MASON (inside turbine tower): This is an interface display. We’re running at full capacity.
MITCHELL: Mason says this turbine has given a lot of local people—from regulators to engineers to truck drivers—their first contact with a wind-energy project. He says that experience could help the offshore project. He points toward the lake.
SETH MASON (inside turbine tower): You basically have the same wind regime. You’re basically going to have the same amount of migratory birds at this longitude. So I think it provides a case study for the next machine.
MITCHELL: It’s not just Cleveland-area boosters who think the Lake Erie wind farm could revive the city. Christopher Hart says it could too. He’s the federal government’s offshore-wind-energy chief.
HART (phone): If a place like Cleveland is able to establish the demonstration project and then is able to leverage that demonstration project into a larger position in the industry, this could really, really have an impact on the local economy.
MITCHELL: Hart says Cleveland has the best shot at installing the first Great Lakes wind farm. But there’s one huge barrier.
HART (phone): Given the current technology, given the current regulatory structure, offshore wind doesn’t make economic sense currently.
MITCHELL: The feds say it’s more than twice as expensive to generate electricity from offshore wind as from coal or natural gas. The New York Power Authority pointed to costs this fall when it pulled the plug on some proposed Great Lakes turbines. That frustrates Chris Wisseman. He’s in charge of installing the offshore wind farm near Cleveland.
WISSEMAN: All we’re talking about here is a new technology that looks like it’s got the ability to be very cost-effective inside of a decade.
MITCHELL: Wisseman says construction would cost about 130-million dollars. The financing’s tricky because not many utilities are eager to buy such expensive electricity. So Wisseman’s pushing for Ohio to compel utilities to buy it and pass along the cost to customers. That’s called rate recovery. If the plan covered just northern Ohio, Wisseman says [business and residential] customers would each pay an extra 40 cents a month. That idea [for financing the Lake Erie wind farm] won’t get far without support from a certain politician:
CORPORATE CEO (at forum): He’s a former managing director of Lehman Brothers, he’s a Fox News commentator. Ladies and gentleman, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Ohio’s 69th governor, John Kasich (applause).
MITCHELL: The governor appoints the members of a commission that regulates Ohio electricity rates. And Kasich’s Republican Party controls both houses of the state legislature. He held an Ohio energy forum this fall.
KASICH (at forum): How about a round of applause for all of us for being here today. . .
MITCHELL: Kasich didn’t leave any doubt about his priority.
KASICH (at forum): Shale.
MITCHELL: In Ohio, layers of that rock hold a lot of natural gas. To free up that gas, companies are planning to drill thousands of horizontal wells and inject pressurized fluids—a process known as fracking. An industry-funded study says the fracking could create more than 200,000 jobs over the next four years. Governor Kasich says this potential boom is keeping his staff busy.
KASICH (at forum): We have had 129 separate meetings – five regional meetings, 78 with business associations, 46 meetings with oil-and-gas division experts all across Ohio.
MITCHELL: At the same time, some contaminated groundwater in nearby Pennsylvania’s giving fracking a bad name. Kasich promises environmental safeguards. He says he’ll also promote renewable energy. So, when I catch up with the governor, I ask whether that includes the wind project off Cleveland’s shore.
KASICH (interview): There is a place for renewables. But we have to be very clear: They’re very expensive. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities in the state. It doesn’t mean that over time they [won’t] become less expensive, but specific projects have to be looked at very, very carefully.
MITCHELL (interview): They’re pushing for a price hike for electricity consumers – in other words, rate recovery. Do you support something like that?
KASICH (interview): No, I’m not going to get into that. That’s why we have . . .
MITCHELL: Some other Republicans are talking. A state senator named Kris Jordan calls rate recovery for offshore wind a bad idea.
JORDAN: I just don’t believe that when we have more affordable, more ready energy sources that government should be subsidizing it.
SOUND (steam horn and water)
MITCHELL: The Lake Erie tugboat battles four-foot waves on the way out to where the wind turbines would stand. On board, Bill Mason shakes his head at the thought of a natural-gas boom tripping up his project.
BILL MASON (on tugboat): We don’t know how much energy is going to be produced from this fracking. We don’t know the environmental damage that possibly could happen from it. And we don’t know what it’s going to cost, if there is damage, for that recovery. If we take that step down that road, won’t it be nice to know that we have other alternatives such as the wind industry out here on the Great Lakes?
MITCHELL: And wouldn’t it be nice, Mason says, if the center of that industry were Cleveland.
SOUND (tugboat gears)
MITCHELL: For Front and Center, Chip Mitchell, WBEZ.
SOUND (tugboat horn)
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