Cleveland may win the race to build offshore turbines, but why have others stopped trying?

Tilting at Windmills 

Cleveland may win the race to build offshore turbines, but why have others stopped trying?

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Lorry Wagner will talk to any community group that will have him. And his message has been the same for years: Cuyahoga County's effort to install five wind turbines off the coast of Lakewood will start something very big for our downtrodden region.

But we've got to be first at this game. Ohio must develop an offshore wind farm in Lake Erie before New York and Ontario do. And both of them are on our heels.

A lifelong boater and an active scuba diver at 59, Wagner took up climbing the massive wind turbine towers that dot Europe several years ago. He is a nuclear engineer by trade, but "Nuclear is never coming to Ohio again," as he puts it.

Wagner is convinced that thousands of turbines off the shores of Lake Erie are our best bet for ditching coal power. But when the South Euclid native speaks to area residents, he presents his eco-beliefs almost as an aside. Instead, he aims to rally everybody around jobs, whether or not they believe in the power of wind.

"We need to capture something for this region to help it economically," Wagner says with an energy that suits his fit frame; his sincere enthusiasm for the promise of offshore wind keeps audiences listening.

"We missed the IT revolution, the silicon revolution, and the biotech revolution, and this region is suffering for it."

As long as Cleveland is first to put turbines in the water, his logic goes, we can become the epicenter for the region's offshore wind industry — which, by the way, is poised to explode: Air rushes over the Great Lakes' watery expanses with optimal vigor that so far is untapped.

Cleveland could be home to the region's first skilled offshore construction crews, which other states and Canada would rely upon. The concrete business will boom as more and more turbine foundations are built here. Our vacant offices will teem with firms specializing in wind energy research, offshore permitting and regulation, and related issues.

Wagner imagines a revamped port becoming more lucrative than it was in the city's early 20th-century heyday. Only this time, dock workers will not be hauling iron ore and steel, but rotor blades that stretch more than half a football field in length.

If all goes as planned, we may launch a new era of shipbuilding here, as specialized vessels are needed to deliver and install the enormous turbine parts in the lake bed.

The ultimate success, says Wagner, would be to demonstrate enough offshore wind-building activity flowing through Cleveland to lure a major turbine manufacturer to set up shop here. (The large parts of wind turbines are now made mostly in Europe and China.)

As president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, Wagner is charged with setting this dream into motion. The first five turbines are slated to go up by late next year. LEEDCo aims to erect 250 of them by 2020 and expand from there.

The company has allies in the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and key business interests, and has heard nothing along the lines of opposition to the plan. But outside of Ohio, thousands of people are failing to warm up to Wagner's vision.

The problem?

"Imagine a lake that looks like a pincushion," says one opponent of offshore turbines.

A 2010 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that Lake Erie alone can accommodate enough turbines to light up almost a third of Ohio's homes. But to reach that capacity, the lake would need to sport about 11,500 of the biggest wind turbines ever made — and they would occupy almost half its total area.

To these anti-wind groups, Cleveland is already the epicenter of the region's offshore wind industry. But in the wrong way.

Lorry Wagner's mission is rooted in a statewide initiative spurred by a renewable energy report issued in 2004 and supported by former Governor Ted Strickland. Reacting to federal pleas for renewable energy development — as well as new national clean air and water laws — Strickland's administration and Cuyahoga County hit on wind energy as the most viable direction for Ohio. Not only was Lake Erie a wind resource waiting to be developed, but such an industry here might revive our dying manufacturing base.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County moved quickly ahead. In 2005, the city installed an offshore monitoring tower to learn just how suitable lake winds are for spinning turbine blades.

A year later, the county commissioners formed the Great Lakes Energy Task Force, installing Prosecutor Bill Mason at its helm — a position he still holds today. That year, Wagner and his Solon company, Azure Energy, installed the 150-foot turbine at the Great Lakes Science Center. (Lake turbines will be at least three times the size, he notes.)

Azure focuses on smaller solar and wind installations, and buys used turbines from Europe to refurbish for use in the U.S. Given his expertise, Wagner was a good fit for a Task Force seat alongside other business and community leaders.

In 2007, the Task Force recommended that a small offshore wind project proceed, and the county hired a German company to conduct a feasibility study that reported more happy news. The offshore wind effort received another boost with the 2008 Ohio law mandating that 25 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2025.

LEEDCo was formed in 2009 as an economic development corporation: a collaboration between Cuyahoga and Lorain counties, the Cleveland Foundation, the City of Cleveland, and NorTech Energy. (Lake and Ashtabula counties have since been brought into the fold.) A year later, Wagner was named president.

The company's purpose is to ensure that the offshore wind industry benefits area companies, creates jobs here, and brings new business to the region.

"This is the kind of thing that is truly regional," Wagner says. "The four counties got together to make sure the economic development happens." The coalition is aimed at discouraging outside developers from going it alone without working through LEEDCo.

"If a developer came into just Ashtabula wanting to put turbines in the lake, then you get poaching and no economic development," says Wagner.

LEEDCo has partnered with a developer of its own: Freshwater Wind, a collaboration between a Texas-based asset management and energy development firm, an international development company, and Great Lakes Wind Energy, which assembled a group of offshore wind experts to develop Lake Erie turbines.

So far, LEEDCo has secured land leases from the state for the nine-square-mile area where the first five turbines will go, some seven and a half miles off the shore of Lakewood. LEEDCo is also well into the testing and research needed to satisfy the 20 state and federal permits required for the project to proceed.

Meanwhile, LEEDCo has contracted with General Electric to supply Lake Erie's first turbines. Each one will rise 450 to 500 feet above the water line, with a blade span of 373 feet. A minimum of 1,800 feet will separate each turbine.

"We chose GE because it has the biggest footprint of supply-chain employees in Ohio," says Chris Wisseman, managing director of Freshwater Wind. Ohio, he points out, is second only to California in manufacturing and selling parts to the world's top turbine makers.

Parker Hannifin, Eaton, Owens Corning, and various smaller companies throughout Ohio currently supply parts and materials for turbine manufacturers. Wagner sees himself as a facilitator to connect even more Ohio companies that may make something turbine manufacturers need, in hopes that a GE or other turbine maker will open a major manufacturing facility here.

As for jobs, LEEDCo estimates that construction of the initial five-turbine wind farm will employ about 600, and 30 to 60 of those jobs will be retained long term. Expanding Ohio's offshore wind program could lead to 8,000 permanent jobs for the region by 2030, Wagner says.

"This is how it starts — it starts with five," says Sherri Lange, director of Toronto Wind Action, which opposes all wind energy projects. "It's not economical to do five. They aren't going to stop. They want to put up hundreds. It's a very dangerous precedent," she says.

Wagner readily admits that LEEDCo doesn't intend to stop at five. The plan is to plant as many as 1,250 turbines in Lake Erie by 2030. But he is undaunted by detractors' claims that the lake will be rendered unusable as a result. "It's unlikely that any more than 20 percent of the Lake would get developed in Ohio waters," he says.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has already issued a map as a guide for offshore wind developments; it blocks off major shipping lanes, protected habitats and fisheries, known bird sanctuaries and stopovers, as well as areas heavily used by recreational boaters.

But Lange believes none of the Great Lakes should be tampered with.

"They are a public trust. They represent 20 percent of the world's remaining freshwater reserves," she says. Furthermore, the environmental impact of installing wind farms in a fresh water lake is unknown, and it's bound to be more profound than that from an installation in open sea.

Lake Erie, it appears, may be North America's fresh water wind guinea pig. There is only one other fresh water wind farm in the world: a 10-turbine project in Sweden's Lake Vanern, which has been online for only a year. So far, very little environmental data has been produced from the project.

One concern is that installing the massive, 7,000-ton foundations needed for each turbine will stir up toxic sludge that currently is safely buried in Erie muck. Chemicals deposited in the lake decades ago by area industries could, if released, kill fish and other aquatic life, and affect drinking water, Lange says.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has turned up toxic chemicals buried in sediment at the mouths of rivers entering the Great Lakes, it has not tested sediment miles offshore, where turbines are likely to go.

But LEEDCo will. "We will be required to take a sediment sample at the location for every single turbine," Wagner says. "If there is something bad in one spot, the agencies are not going to let us put a turbine there."

Opponents also worry that rotor blades spinning at 150 miles per hour present a danger to anything that flies. Raptors, loons, and some other bird species cross Lake Erie flying under 500 feet and within the rotors' reach. But studies show that many birds fly around turbines, says Scott Petrie, executive director of Long Point Waterfowl, a Toronto-based wetlands and waterfowl research center.

"The turbines will kill more bats and butterflies than birds," he says, because neither avoids anything. The fate of bats is particularly macabre: They are attracted to dead insects on the rotor blades, and the drastic air-pressure change at the blade tips makes their lungs explode.

LEEDCo has already conducted mandatory avian radar studies, but the results have yet to be tabulated.

"There are going to be birds killed. That's just life," Wagner says. "If it turns out there are certain areas with a super-high density of birds or bats going from point A to point B, then you can be sure the regulators will say that's a corridor we aren't going into."

Petrie, however, fears the effects on migratory patterns from closing off multiple corridors. "There are so many thousands of turbines proposed, and there is no discussion between different states and provinces," he says.

There are also aesthetic objections and critics who say Lake Erie wind farms will damage tourism and water recreation — the "pincushion" effect.

"People come here to enjoy the beautiful sunsets over Lake Erie. What do wind farms do to the visual impact?" asks Thomas Marks, executive director of Great Lakes Wind Truth, an anti-wind group in New York.

New York's turbine developers will require pleasure boaters to steer clear of wind farms, which Marks says will seriously limit recreation and access to popular fishing spots.

Maybe those boaters can sail toward Ohio. The U.S. Coast Guard has no restrictions on boat access to turbine sites and, according to Wagner, LEEDCo has no plans to restrict access either. "We have some thoughts of putting tie-offs on the turbine foundations, so boats can tie off there rather than drop anchor," Wagner says. "We know people will be fishing there, and we may as well make it as friendly as possible."

According to Wagner, foundations for other structures built in fresh water have made wonderful reefs. "The fish love it!" he says. And just in case they don't, LEEDCo will carefully monitor underwater activity near the turbines. If anything is amiss, the problem can be addressed before more turbines are built.

Wagner has heard little dissent from Ohio's boaters and fishermen. "There have been one or two questions, but along the lines of, 'Are the rotors going to take off the mast on my sailboat?'" (The answer is no — there will be at least 75 feet between the tip of the blades and the water surface.)

But boater opposition could ratchet up soon. Earlier this month, Ohio boat clubs were plastered with a lengthy letter detailing the extent of and potential boating pitfalls of wind farms in Lake Erie. It was posted by a Buffalo resident and member of Great Lakes Concerned Citizens, which opposes offshore wind projects.

The eight-page epistle warns of the havoc more than 10,000 Lake Erie turbines could cause. "LEEDCo is not telling you about the many negatives involved as they are aware that an adverse reaction will soon take place," it reads. "We are helping that along."

The fate of Wagner's vision for the local economy will depend on which way the political winds blow elsewhere. Anti-wind groups have held up developments across the region. That means Ohio is winning the race to develop an equipment base and expertise — which is ideal, as long as those other projects eventually move forward.

But if other governments shut down their dreams of offshore wind, Cleveland may be left with just its five lake turbines — pretty for a postcard, but not much good for economic development or producing green energy on a grand scale.

In Ontario, a burgeoning land-based wind initiative has resulted in improved air quality and reduced need for coal-fired electricity. But the province's commitment to green energy stalled when developers started eyeing the shoreline. In February, Ontario placed an indefinite moratorium on offshore wind development, including several projects that would have placed 715 turbines in Lake Erie.

The halt, even if temporary, may be enough to help Cleveland get its offshore wind industry off the ground here first.

"What seems to have happened was a decision was made to develop offshore wind very high up," Wagner says. "When most of the population of Ontario heard about it, they read it in the newspaper. No one ever came to talk to them.

"The other thing is, they wanted to put turbines a mile and a half offshore, so they were in your face."

He believes the situation up north will be sorted out — and offshore development will resume — after Ontario's October elections.

"They will have fewer turbines farther off shore, and they will have conversations with the public," Wagner says. "And once they get going, they're going to move so fast it will make your head spin."

John Wilkinson, Ontario's minister of the environment, indicates otherwise.

"We still have more questions than answers," he tells Scene. "And that is the driving force behind our decision to not move ahead with offshore wind development at this point."

Because offshore wind in fresh water is at such an early stage of development, Wilkinson says, Ontario will monitor research from Cleveland's pilot project and the wind farm in Sweden. This will help Ontario identify whether additional environmental safeguards are needed before the province moves forward.

In Michigan, pending legislation would prohibit using state-owned waters for turbine construction, wind energy transmission lines — even the placement of wind recording devices. Although no offshore wind development is planned in Lake Erie off the small swath of Michigan that lies between Toledo and Detroit, large projects were slated for Lake Michigan until the populace shot them down.

"Current public opinion in our area shows strong support for the ban on industrializing the Great Lakes," says Michigan Representative Ray Franz. Their reasons are numerous: disturbing fisheries and bird migration, navigational hazards for boaters, aesthetics, the high cost of wind energy, and unknown environmental impacts.

"Disturbing the bottom lands of the lakes that have not been disturbed for thousands of years could create a very negative impact," Franz says.

Wagner understands the Michigan problem. "They wanted to put [500-plus] turbines three miles off the nicest beaches of Lake Michigan," he says. "As much as I love offshore wind, I wouldn't want it if those were the beaches I went to. There was a firestorm."

Wagner adds that Michigan, like Canada, has expressed interest in watching how LEEDCo proceeds. He considers that a compliment and a handy advantage.

"Our leadership position is critical here," he says. "While we may only have a small project, we will have the lion's share of the ability to do it. We want them to hire our surveyors and geotech people."

If the LEEDCo project is delayed, New York may present some competition. The state plans to start by putting up to 166 turbines in Lake Erie, but construction won't begin before 2014.

Public outcry hasn't made the kind of dent in the New York project that it has in Ontario and Michigan. County lawmakers there have signed petitions opposing Lake Erie development, citing environmental concerns and negative impacts on tourism and recreation. But these are mere opinions, with no power to stop the state's plans.

"Initially, the power authority said they would consider the wishes of the communities, but it doesn't look like that is happening," says a spokeswoman for Erie County legislator Lynne Dixon.

Unlike in other regions, Wagner says LEEDCo is doing things the right way: starting with just five turbines, so that any unexpected environmental effects can be addressed before more are built. Community meetings, designed to hear residents' concerns at every step, seem to be panning out. Local opposition to LEEDCo's vision, he says, has been all but nonexistent.

"The community as a whole is very supportive of the offshore wind project," says Stefanie Penn Spear, founder and executive director of the local sustainability-promoting group Ecowatch.

"The exciting part of this project is that in addition to generating power from renewable sources, the companies and LEEDCo are very supportive in getting businesses to move to our region to create green jobs," she says.

Ecowatch supports offshore wind — as long as every turbine is sited properly. "When you talk about the future impact of the many proposed wind turbine projects on Lake Erie, my mind goes to all the issues impacting the lake from coal-fired power plants," Spear says. "And they are significant: acid rain, mercury levels. We've got to find a better way to power Ohio. Natural gas is not the silver bullet, because [hydraulic fracturing] to get it creates problems."

Audubon groups are also generally in favor of renewable energy efforts, and evaluate each project on a case-by-case basis.

"We want to make sure any development, particulary with wind, is properly sited and that the appropriate testing is done to ensure birds and wildlife are protected," says Marnie Urso, Cleveland coordinator for Audubon Ohio. "I think that remains to be seen for Lake Erie."

Even with local support, there remains one sizable challenge to LEEDCo's progress: money. So far, there isn't much.

The group's development arm is running on about $1 to $1.5 million, most of it granted from the Cleveland Foundation and NorTech. It has applied for U.S. Department of Energy grants to, among other things, fund studies on keeping costs down.

"The development money is a far cry from the money necessary to build the project," says Freshwater Wind's Wisseman.

The five initial turbines will cost $100 million to purchase and install. A ship capable of carrying the foundations and turbine parts to their watery home will cost $20 to $30 million to build, or about $15 million to rent.

"If we only have $15 million," says Wagner matter-of-factly, "then we will rent."

Then there is the issue of Cleveland's port. LEEDCo recently formed a commission to determine what modifications will be needed to ensure the port can handle turbine traffic — and, of course, to determine how much those modifications might cost.

Freshwater Wind aims to woo private investors, and KeyBank is onboard to finance the initial five turbines and their installation, according to Wisseman. Key has supported wind projects nationwide since 2007. Company officials did not respond to interview requests for this story.

But any company's commitment to financing the project depends on Freshwater Wind guaranteeing it has buyers for all the electricity that will be created.

Cleveland Public Power is likely to buy up to 5 percent of its electricity through the project, according to Councilman Matt Zone. There have been discussions with First Energy, but nothing more.

"It's a little premature," First Energy spokeswoman Ellen Raines told Scene.

Where discussions go will depend on whether Ohio legislators add financial incentives to the renewable energy credits that utility companies get for buying offshore wind.

Ohio previously decided that credits for buying solar power are worth more to utility companies because solar energy costs more to produce; credits for buying wind energy are worth the same as credits for less costly forms of renewable energy. Because it costs twice as much to develop offshore wind as it does to install wind farms on land, LEEDCo is lobbying for offshore wind credits to be worth more.

Without legislation to grant offshore wind preferential (and more valuable) renewable energy credits, there may be no buyers for offshore wind power. If that happens, the first five turbines may not even be built.

LEEDCo tried to have legislation introduced with the current Ohio budget bill, but failed.

"There was pushback because it was a budget bill, not an energy bill," Wisseman says. So the legislation will be considered with a planned energy bill in the fall, which is also likely to include the very controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing.

"We've been working with the folks in Columbus, and it looks like things will be kind of lively in the fall," he says.

While he waits for the state legislature's decision, Wagner will keep talking about wind turbines to whomever will listen. With the sailing season in full swing, much of his summer will be spent at Ohio's marinas and yacht clubs.

"I'm sure we will run into people who say, 'You're ruining our lake,'" Wagner admits. "Everything has validity. With anything anyone tries to do, there's always many sides to the story.

"People don't want nuclear, they don't want coal because of the mercury in the water, they don't want natural gas because of the fracking. But you've got to use something!" he says. "We're hoping, and we believe, that this is it."

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