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LEEDCo tries breaking the ice on wind project

Lorry Wagner could not afford to take off Monday to celebrate Presidents Day.

“We got just one year, and every day counts,” said Wagner, president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp.

The group, of which Ashtabula County is a member, is under the gun to demonstrate to the federal government its offshore wind project can clear all the logistical, permitting, fiscal and technical hurdles involved in citing a wind farm in Lake Erie.

Last week, $4 million in U.S. Department of Energy funding began to flow into LEEDCo’s “Icebreaker” project. The one-year award will fund an advanced technology demonstration program to build five to nine wind turbines seven miles off the coast of Cleveland in Lake Erie.

The DOE grant to LEEDCo was one of seven advanced technology, offshore demonstration projects to receive funding. Icebreaker is the only one in the Great Lakes.

At the end of the grant period, the DOE will evaluate the demonstration projects and select three projects that will receive $46 million each over four years. Wagner that kind of money would fund 40 to 50 percent of LEEDCo’s planned project of 20 to 30 megawatts.

Although the demonstration project will be built off Cuyahoga County, the wind off Ashtabula County is even stronger, according to an Ohio Department of Natural Resources study. Ashtabula County commissioners thus support LEEDCo with membership, board representation and cash because of the economic development potential that offshore wind could mean for the county.

“Think of Icebreaker in Lake Erie as the flagship of projects that could be installed in the Great Lakes, which has enormous offshore wind potential,” said Walt Musial, manager of Offshore Wind and Ocean Power Systems at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo.

Proponents of the project also point to the industry’s supply chain potential for Ohio industry and the maintenance business for ports like Conneaut and Ashtabula.

Even with another $46 million in DOE funding, it will take years and many more millions of dollars to make just the demonstration project come together.

“We will still require some private equity,” Wagner said of LEEDCo’s search for matching dollars. Because the DOE projects require cost sharing, down-sizing the scope of the $95 million demonstration project to the amount of the DOE grant is not an option.

While $95 million sounds like a large investment, it’s just a tenth of what Fujian Datang International Wind Power plans to invest on 300 megawat project off China’s southwestern coast. China officials plan to install 5 giggawats of offshore wind capacity by 2015.

The Lake Erie project faces numerous technological challenges that must be met in the next year. Wagner said the key to dealing with these issues is to adapt existing skill sets, vessels and technology to the challenges of Lake Erie’s harsh environment. De-icing is one of the big issues; if ice builds up on the turbine blades, the imbalance would require the turbine be shut down until the ice is cleared.

Finland is already generating offshore power in harsh environments even colder than what Lake Erie has, so Wagner said LEEDCo is looking at how the industry in that nation handles the challenge. Siemens, one of LEEDCo partners, is studying heated blades as a solution, while other companies are focused on coatings.

Wagner said LEEDCo also will need to have in place power purchase agreements with potential customers in order to meet the DOE criteria for the next round of funding. There’s no question that the cost of offshore wind will be considerably higher than that produced by burning coal or natural gas, however, by blending the wind-generated power with that from fossil fuel sources, the impact on the consumer should be minimal, Wagner said. Further, because the power will be coming from a demonstration project rather than a large-scale wind farm, the price will be inflated.

As to when Ashtabula County would directly benefit from offshore wind farm investment, Wagner predicted it will take several years just for the permitting. Environmental impact data collected from the demonstration site will help regulators develop the permitting requirements, and LEEDCo will have four years to build and evaluate the project.

“But it is very possible that three years down the road, a developer might start the permitting process for the next wind farm. It’s not a purely sequential thing,” Wagner said.