Doing The Wind Farm Dance: LEEDCo Promotes Offshore Turbines in Lake Erie

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On Thursday, Rep. Marcy Kaptur is set to join Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and all sorts of alternative energy stakeholders for a Big Event downtown. People from across the state will gather at the newly christened Cleveland Convention Center to hear about Lake Erie Energy Development’s “POWER UP for Offshore Wind” energy project.

Here’s the immediate plan: By 2017, six massive wind turbines will dot the lakescape about seven miles north of Cleveland. Sounds simple, but this is huge: It would be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. Plus, people are referring to it as Project: Icebreaker, so there’s hope that Jackson will offer up his best James Bond bit during the Big Event. (“Mayoral influence - mistaken, not heard,” we can all imagine him saying.)

With 525 attached jobs and a presumed $80 million in gross regional product, Icebreaker runs a tidy set of numbers alongside its alternative energy promises. Loftier plans have at least in the past called for 1,250 turbines in Lake Erie by 2030.

And that nod to the past is fairly relevant here. Lake Erie Energy Development, a nonprofit economic development corporation cutely colloquialized as LEEDCo, has proposed much of this before. The region has been humoring these conversations for years, which is precisely how Cleveland works best.

In early 2012, LEEDCo put its wind farm plans on hold after Gov. John Kasich waved off any desire to pitch in state funding. Cleveland Public Power was willing to chip in some coin to the tune of 25 percent (and still is), but other investors seemed skittish. This time around, LEEDCo is taking its project to the people.

“We are taking this very market-based approach to making this happen,” Eric Ritter, LEEDCo’s communications and strategy manager, tells Scene. “Public support is absolutely crucial to making sure this first project gets off the ground.” LEEDCo’s grassroots Power Pledge (circulated via canvassers) offers a non-binding agreement for residents: “If wind power is an option, I agree to pay “x” amount more to get in on that action,” to paraphrase. So far, more than 4,500 people in the region have signed on.

A major problem faced by LEEDCo is the same sorta thing that plagues anyone involved in the alt-energy biz: a penchant for preaching to the choir and an at-large audience that’s less than enthralled. Opposition abounds from nearly every corner of the pro-environment and the more ambivalent crowds. Concerns regard bird and bat deaths, migratory patterns, lake aesthetics, freshwater pollutants, etc.

“We’re very concerned about freshwater contamination,” Ritter says, pointing to Ohio’s 80-percent coal-backed electricity grid, which pumps Lake Erie full of mercury emissions. And surveys from independent groups maintain that the impact on birds and bats over the lake will be “very minimal.”

“That’s also part of the reason why you do a small-scale pilot project,” Ritter adds.

The other main difference between this project’s current iteration and past promises is that the Department of Energy is lending funds. LEEDCo has earned $4 million up front (one of seven projects nationwide), and the group will jockey for $46.7 million next year. The Icebreaker permits must be in place by February 2014 to compete for such grant money. That, and the power of the people, of course, lends an air of urgency to Thursday’s announcement.

Here’s the pro-con dichotomy at work: A 2010 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that Lake Erie could accommodate enough turbines to power about one-third of Ohio's more than 5 million homes. To get there, however, the lake would be pockmarked with more than 11,000 of the biggest wind turbines ever made (each of which ascending to nearly the height of the Huntington Bank Building downtown). Given rotorspan and overall height, that would take up about half of the lake’s entire area.

Now, that’s a broad look at the wind farm issue in Lake Erie, but it’s indicative of the dynamics at play. The problem becomes less of an attempt to convince investors and more of an issue of growing the project out of “guinea pig” status.

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