Three energy development firms – two of them foreign – have taken an interest in a pilot project to put one of the country’s first offshore wind farms off the coast of Cleveland.
If an agreement is struck, the investment in local wind industry could spread to Ashtabula County – at least that’s the hope of county Commissioner Dan Claypool.
“There are no active offshore wind turbine operations in the U.S.,” he said. “We actually want (the Ashtabula coast) to be the central hub, as far as the industry itself. … We would look to see a commercial development off the coast of Ashtabula.”
Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation of Cleveland, or LEEDCo, calls the Cleveland test project – which is planned for eight to 10 miles off the Cleveland coast – the “Icebreaker,” said CEO Lorry Wagner. Its success depends, in part, on how competitive the utility can become, next to cheaper, non-renewable energy.
But if it pays off for Cleveland, Ashtabula County or Lake County would be an obvious next step for the investing firm, he said. He said a Cleveland Foundation-funded meteorological tower has been measuring wind strength in the area for about a decade, which gives a good snapshot of potential return on investment.
“You build them where there’s the most wind,” Wagner said. “The wind gets better as you go east on the lake – that would indicate Ashtabula has the best wind in Ohio.
“As we grow the industry, we feel Ashtabula has a lot to gain from it. We’re still in the early days. … (Ashtabula County) commissioners see that there’s great potential there. I’m sure their mission is to make that clear to whoever the developer (will be).”
The county has been a “tremendous” supporter of LEEDCo’s wind initiative, he said, and Lake, Cuyahoga, Erie and Lorain counties have also gotten behind the corporation.
Though Claypool said he feels the United States has been “slow” to adopt alternative energy, he said “I think the rest of the world has shown that it is feasible.
“I don’t think it’s the answer to our energy problems, but I think it’s part of the equation. As you see coal plants and fossil fuels be decommissioned, I think there has to be something next.”
One major European firm – not named because a deal has yet to be inked – has already met with LEEDCo representatives at least three times over the last year, to ensure LEEDCo’s dedication to the project. It’s “due diligence,” Wagner said, but he hopes he’ll know whether the firm is in within the month. Two other firms – one from Canada and the east coast – are also being courted.
The first investment landed will likely be small, he said – most of the equity would come when construction gets underway.
“Our mission has been to build a pilot project to demonstrate what we can do, develop the technology and gain the experience,” Wagner said.
Wagner said construction on a Rhode Island wind farm was recently funded by D.E. Shaw Group, one of the largest private equity firms in the country. But three other U.S. Department of Energy-funded wind development projects have met obstacles and are in jeopardy of losing funding.
By and large, the country’s wind energy industry is at least a decade behind Europe – where investments are often at least $100 million for “monstrous” projects and involve many major European energy players, he said. That market deems an offshore wind farm competitive if it can produce at less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, or kWh.
“If we come in at 10 cents (per kWh) or better, will that be competitive in this market? That is really the question,” Wagner said. “We know electricity prices are on the rise. But if there are 7 cents (per kWh options), how do you get someone to buy at 10 cents?
“Could you argue that we’ll be there in five or eight years? I would argue ‘yes,’ only because the industry in Europe knows they need to get down to about 7 cents to really be competitive,” he said.
Comparatively, solar energy was at about 12 center per kWh two to three years ago, and that was a “tough” sell, he said. But in the next 10 years, he expects that price will drop to between 5 and 7 cents.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we were going to be competitive, and that bodes well for Ashtabula,” Wagner said.
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