In Ohio, roughly 80 percent of the electricity we use comes from coal-fired power plants. One Northeast Ohio group wants to change that by installing a wind farm in Lake Erie. If it succeeds, this will be the first offshore wind farm in the United States. For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN’s Michelle Kanu has this story about the team’s efforts to get public buy-in for the idea.
When Lorry Wagner looks out over Lake Erie, he envisions six, gigantic turbines churning the breeze into energy seven miles offshore.
“To the average person standing on the dock, when they look out they will see these small objects on the horizon. Even though they’re about 465 feet tall, from the vantage point on the shore they’re going to be about the size of a dime on a clear day,” he says.
As the president of the non-profit Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, or LEEDCo, Wagner is spearheading an effort to design, build, and operate a wind farm that could generate enough power for 8,500 homes for a year. His group already won a $4 million award from the Department of Energy to explore the project, and it’s vying against seven groups from other states for a second wave of money—an extra $47 million.
“We’re doing the preliminary engineering now, selecting the right foundation, getting our permit applications in, building public support, selling the power,” he says. “And the next phase is to do the final engineering, secure the permits, get the financial close, and then start building it in 2016 and then complete it in 2017.”
A project of this scale involves a lot of brain power—and a lot of regulatory hurdles. LEEDCo has 15 different groups helping it get clearance from various environmental, federal, and state agencies.
Dave Nash is one such ally. He’s a partner with the environmental law firm McMahon DeGulis in Cleveland.
“Key agencies are the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Power Siting board, the Federal Aviation Administration. We have to make sure these turbines aren’t in the flight paths for Burke Lakefront Airport or Hopkins Airport.”
Nash says coordinating among so many agencies is a challenge, especially since none of them has experience with offshore wind farms in North America. He says they have to work together, and sometimes invent protocol.
“We have to … sort of invent if there are gaps in the current regulations because the regulations were written at a time when no one really thought about putting wind turbines in the Great Lakes, or offshore, even in the Atlantic Ocean for that matter.”
While Nash is busy getting regulatory approval, another LEEDCo staffer is trying to get the blessing of the Northeast Ohio community.
On a tree-lined residential street in Lakewood, Eric Ritter is going door-to-door, asking people to sign a pledge to buy a percentage of their electricity from the future wind farm. Ritter introduces himself – and the project – to one homeowner.
But the concept isn’t always a quick sell. Some say turbines are an eyesore and too expensive to build. Others say solar power is a much cheaper source of renewable energy. And this homeowner is concerned what wind power will do to his electric bill.
“I’m just not going to commit to buy until we know what kind of dollars it’s going to cost per kilowatt hour,” the homeowner says.
But Ritter is not deterred. “Let me briefly explain what this is,” he says. “Public support is really important to get this first project off the ground. And there’s a really powerful way you can help, and that’s to sign this. And it’s called the power pledge.”
Ritter and his team of 10 have been canvassing Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, and Ashtabula counties. He says their efforts are paying off—more than half the people they talk to are willing to listen, and 3,500 people have already signed on.
Willing to pay a little bit more
“The fact that 60 percent of people say that they’re willing to pay a little bit more to get their electricity from this project, and that that’s consistent no matter who the canvasser is and no matter what community that they go to, that’s a really powerful message to send to investors, to electricity marketers.”
Demonstrating public support is only a small part of what will make LEEDCo’s wind farm enticing to the Department of Energy. The feds want to fund projects that can generate offshore wind energy at a lower cost. In February, only three groups will be awarded the additional money to actually build and install the turbines.
Back on the shore of Lake Erie, Lorry Wagner says if LEEDCo wins the next round of money, the project could boost employment for the region.
“We’ll have about 500 jobs in building it and this is engineering, banking, legal, permitting, biology, you name it, as well as construction. And about 10 percent of those jobs will ultimately be permanent.”
Wagner says LEEDCo is counting on some investment from its partner companies to help finance the project.