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Offshore Wind to Power Economic Growth in Lake Erie Region

Cleveland-based nonprofit pushes forward on 'Icebreaker,' a project that supporters believe can play a role in region's economic and environmental future

by Douglas J. Guth - Contributing Writer / September 15, 2014

Over the last few months, the Cleveland-based promoter of a proposed wind energy project on Lake Erie has undergone setbacks in getting its electricity-producing effort into motion. These obstacles, while initially discouraging, have not stopped work on building up the offshore wind industry in Northeast Ohio, its supporters maintain.

In June, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) was not selected for one of three $47-million four-year grants distributed by the Department of Energy for its Advanced Technology Demonstration Project program. The funding would have allowed LEEDCo to move ahead on its 18-MW "Icebreaker" pilot venture - set to erect a half dozen wind turbines seven miles offshore in Lake Erie - and have it in operation by 2017.

Instead, the nonprofit finished fourth in the demonstration project, and will receive at least $3 million from DOE to complete engineering and other studies to push the program forward. The new funding adds to the $4 million grant LEEDCo secured from DOE in December 2012.

While losing out on the larger fund was a missed opportunity, LEEDCo remains committed to an untapped energy source that could play a vital role in the economic and environmental future of the region and state, said vice president of operations Dave Karpinski.

"Lake Erie stares you right between the eyes as a great place for place for offshore wind," Karpinski said. "It just makes sense."

New power generation

LEEDCo, founded in 2009 by a local conglomerate of nonprofits and city-based entities, is currently talking to private and public investors to accrue additional funding. While the physical parameters of the offshore wind project remain unchanged, the group has taken a long-term view on market drivers that can make investment all the more attractive.

Thanks to new federal policies limiting carbon emissions from power plants, wind energy can become a crucial facet of the country’s clean energy mix, believes Karpinski. Natural gas will play a role as well, but another renewable resource will be needed as coal gradually goes off line.

"Gas is not going to be able to do it all," said Karpinski. "You have to look at your entire energy portfolio and what resources there are available."

Wind power potential over Lake Erie's waters is much greater than it is over land, notes the organization vice president. LEEDCo estimates offshore wind in the Great Lakes overall has over 700 gigawatts of electric generating potential.

Northeast Ohio in particular has the potential to be an early mover in the marketplace, Karpinski notes. He views the region as a future hub for global offshore wind expertise that could create an estimated 8,000 jobs and generate up to $12.9 billion in gross regional product as the industry scales up.

LEEDCo has already partnered with a dozen local companies specializing in marine logistics, electrical engineering and offshore construction. Cementing these relationships now will only benefit the wind industry over the coming decades, Karpinski said.

"We haven't suffered any kind of decline in support," he said. "People are still passionate about the potential for wind power here."

Environmental concerns

Lake Erie presents particular technical and engineering challenges for those aiming to create a water-based wind farm on its surface. The project isn't called "Icebreaker" for nothing, as any wind turbines built on the lake will be battered by tons of frozen water over the course of Cleveland's long winters.

This challenge will be met by specially designed ice cones that will crush ice floes coming in contact with the turbine, said Karpinski. Sensors will collect data on ice thickness and strength, giving LEEDCo valuable information on turbine engineering requirements. Wave strength and wind loads will also be assessed, allowing the organization to further refine innovation and lower costs for future turbine construction.

LEEDCo is monitoring ecological activity around the project, and has already received clearance from fish and wildlife experts from the Ohio Department of National Resources.

The nonprofit has also gotten pushback from those concerned that turbines will harm migratory birds. A study prepared by an environmental consulting firm last fall stated the project would have little impact on migratory patterns, as very few birds use flight paths that would take them to the portion of Lake Erie set aside for turbine activity.

An industry leader

Although it's only a demonstration, the Lake Erie wind project can put Northeast Ohio on the leading edge of an industry just starting to catch on in the U.S., Karpinski said. The Block Island Wind Farm, a 30-megawatt offshore enterprise off the coast of Rhode Island, is one such venture gaining momentum ahead of the LEEDCo effort.

A robust power-producing foundation would mean jobs in engineering, operations, construction and more. Europe has 58,000 people working in offshore wind; tapping into even a small percentage of that figure would be a boon for a job-hungry region, said Karpinski.

Lake Erie wind power still has its hurdles to overcome, among them the funds being siphoned to established energy industries as well as a recent freeze on state clean energy requirements. However, for every door that closes, LEEDCo is looking toward the doors that are still open. With an enormous power resource making waves on Ohio's doorstep, the nonprofit and its supporters will continue to advocate for a project that can make both the planet and the regional economy healthier.

"We've got to make a change to our energy infrastructure and offshore wind can be part of the solution," said Karpinski. "The status quo is not acceptable."

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and journalist. He has written stories about technology, alternative energies and the environment for local and regional publications including Midwest Energy News, HiVelocity Magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.



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