When the Lake Erie windmill movement turned serious six years ago, one of the goals was to have a handful of them up and spinning by the end of 2011.
Now, don’t pile the kids in a car and drive downtown to gaze at the magnificent sight of 300-foot-high turbines in the lake, producing electricity that helps light up the town.
The windmills aren’t there yet.
Neither will they be there later this year, next year, or the year after. In fact, they might not be there for another 10, 20, maybe even 30 or more years.
Proponents cling to the hope that five to seven of the colossal, 225-ton machines will be up and running sometime around 2017.
But that’s probably wildly optimistic.
Continued exploration of alternative energy sources is a worthwhile idea.
Indeed, history may view the offshore windmill proponents as visionary pioneers who helped revive the entire Great Lakes region.
But it’s time to rein in expectations, perhaps dramatically. At the moment, a whole lot of news relates to offshore wind specifically, and renewable energy in general.
And all of it is bad.
• The cost remains staggering. As of today, installing five to seven wind turbines a few miles off the shore of downtown would cost at least $150 million. That gigantic sum would provide power for a measly 6,000 to 8,000 homes.
•In September, costs prompted the New York Power Authority to pull the plug on an ambitious windmill project planned for Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A few months earlier, the Canadian province of Ontario declared a moratorium on its offshore wind efforts. Many believe the same will soon happen in Michigan.
•A compelling reason to pursue wind and other alternative energy sources has always been the rising cost of traditional energy sources. But with natural gas prices plummeting to a 10-year low – and likely to remain low for the foreseeable future – the alternative energy movement loses almost all its momentum.
•Alternative energy projects require significant public subsidies. Gov. John Kasich has dropped hints that he’s not a fan of the huge taxpayer investments.
•A growing number of Cleveland-area corporate leaders have come to believe the fixation with windmills is a misplaced priority – especially in a region with problems galore. At the head of that list is perhaps the city’s most respected CEO, Eaton Corp.’s Sandy Cutler.
•Current state law says that by 2025, Ohio’s electric utilities must generate 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as solar or wind power. A bill in the Ohio Senate would repeal that requirement. Repealing those requirements altogether would be unconscionable. But anything is possible from a legislature so bad it’s now considering a bill that would no longer require people who are stopped for a traffic offense to tell the police they’re carrying a gun.
If the legislature scales back or repeals those alternative energy requirements, Cleveland Foundation CEO Ronn Richard said it will be sending a message to young, educated people:
Stay away from Ohio.
“If vested interests are allowed to gut or eliminate these energy requirements, it will be like hanging out a giant sign saying Ohio doesn’t want any more people like Charles F. Brush or John D. Rockefeller,” said Richard, one of the original and most passionate supporters of Cleveland’s offshore wind effort. “Talented young people want to live in a state that’s looking forward, not backward.”
Nevertheless, Richard acknowledges that making progress on the wind effort has been “harder than we thought.” But Richard and Lorry Wagner, president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., argue that the decision by other governments to scale back their water-based wind efforts represents an opportunity, not necessarily a setback.
“Being first in the water could make up the epicenter of an industry that could spread turbines throughout the Great Lakes,” said Richard.
Wagner, whose group is the nonprofit designed to make that happen, said existing offshore wind turbines now represent a global investment of $400 million. But not a single one of those turbines is in the United States.
“It’s a tough project,” admitted Wagner. “It’s risky. But the Wright brothers didn’t get off the ground by being chicken. To be first, everything takes longer.”
In this case, it may be a whole lot longer.
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