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Wind farm  Photo:  Chip Mitchell
Wind farm Photo: Chip Mitchell

Gas drilling could take air out of offshore wind

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Politics and price are pitting gas drilling against offshore wind on the Great lakes.
Our Front and Center partnership with WBEZ in Chicago looks at hopes for economic revival in the nation's rustbelt.

In the Cleveland area, politicians and businessmen have been pushing for years to build a wind farm in Lake Erie. But the project's financing is up in the air, and as WBEZ's Chip Mitchell reports, state politics is tipping the balance toward hydrofracking, and away from what could be the first major offshore wind development in the Great Lakes.

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I understand the power of Lake Erie wind as soon we’re out past the breakwaters of Cleveland Harbor. The waves make this 74-foot tugboat bob like a rubber toy in a bath tub. Before long, I’m sweating and looking for a place to heave. Next to me, though, Bill Mason seems to be enjoying the ride. In fact, he wants to show me a spot with more wind.

"Out beyond us, where we’re headed, is to the crib," Mason says. "We have an anemometer."

He means ane-MAH-meter.

"It’s been measuring the wind speeds since, I think, 2007," he says. "So I know we have good wind...."

Mason doesn’t know all the particulars about wind energy. But, as the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, he knows a lot about Northeast Ohio. Since taking office in 1999, he’s seen about a 100,000 manufacturing jobs disappear there.

Mason says putting a handful of wind turbines off Cleveland’s shore could spark a revival.

"We have been known as a rustbelt city forever. And this, in itself, can change the city to a green city on the blue lake."

To promote the wind-farm idea, Mason helped form a quasi-public group that’s held dozens of community meetings. It’s secured an option for nine square miles of the lake. It’s studied possible impacts on wildlife. And it’s begun work on designs and permits. Mason says Cleveland could help build offshore wind farms throughout the Great Lakes.

"We have a deep-water port. We have a rail system that travels right along the lake."

And Mason says local manufacturers could retool to make everything from transmission cables to ice-resistant blade coating. The wind-farm supporters commissioned a study that found the project could lead to 15,000 new Ohio jobs within two decades. The supply chain could include Lincoln Electric. That company makes welding equipment near Cleveland. It’s also getting a taste of generating wind energy.

This year Lincoln Electric installed a turbine to help power its plant. It’s more than 400 feet tall. On a windy day, the tips of the three blades go 160 miles an hour. But you can’t hear them until you’re right under them.

Lincoln Electric’s Seth Mason takes me up inside the turbine tower.

"This is an interface display," says Mason. "We’re running at full capacity."

Mason says this turbine has given a lot of local people—from regulators to engineers to truck drivers—their first contact with a wind-energy project. He says that experience could help the offshore project. He points toward the lake.

"You basically have the same wind regime. You’re basically going to have the same amount of migratory birds at this longitude. So I think it provides a case study for the next machine."

It’s not just Cleveland-area boosters who think the Lake Erie wind farm could revive the city. Christopher Hart says it could too. He’s the federal government’s offshore-wind-energy chief.

"If a place like Cleveland is able to establish the demonstration project and then is able to leverage that demonstration project into a larger position in the industry, this could really, really have an impact on the local economy."

Hart says Cleveland has the best shot at installing the first Great Lakes wind farm. But there’s one huge barrier.

"Given the current technology, given the current regulatory structure, offshore wind doesn’t make economic sense currently," says Hart.

The feds say it’s more than twice as expensive to generate electricity from offshore wind as from coal or natural gas. The New York Power Authority pointed to costs this fall when it pulled the plug on some proposed Great Lakes turbines. That frustrates Chris Wisseman. He’s in charge of installing the offshore wind farm near Cleveland.

"All we’re talking about here is a new technology that looks like it’s got the ability to be very cost-effective inside of a decade," he says.

Wisseman says construction would cost about 130-million dollars. The financing’s tricky because not many utilities are eager to buy such expensive electricity. So Wisseman’s pushing for Ohio to compel utilities to buy it and pass along the cost to customers. That’s called rate recovery. If the plan covered just northern Ohio, Wisseman says [business and residential] customers would each pay an extra 40 cents a month. That idea [for financing the Lake Erie wind farm] won’t get far without support from a certain politician: former managing director of Lehman Brothers, Fox News commentator and Ohiho's 60th governor - John Kasich.

The governor appoints the members of a commission that regulates Ohio electricity rates. And Kasich’s Republican Party controls both houses of the state legislature. He held an Ohio energy forum this fall.

"How about a round of applause for all of us for being here today," the governor said at a forum.

Kasich didn’t leave any doubt about his priority.

"Shale."

In Ohio, layers of that rock hold a lot of natural gas. To free up that gas, companies are planning to drill thousands of horizontal wells and inject pressurized fluids—a process known as fracking. An industry-funded study says the fracking could create more than 200,000 jobs over the next four years. Governor Kasich says this potential boom is keeping his staff busy.

"We have had 129 separate meetings — five regional meetings, 78 with business associations, 46 meetings with oil-and-gas division experts all across Ohio."

At the same time, some contaminated groundwater in nearby Pennsylvania’s giving fracking a bad name. Kasich promises environmental safeguards. He says he’ll also promote renewable energy. So, when I catch up with the governor, I ask whether that includes the wind project off Cleveland’s shore.

"There is a place for renewables," Kashich responds. "But we have to be very clear: They’re very expensive. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities in the state. It doesn’t mean that over time they [won’t] become less expensive, but specific projects have to be looked at very, very carefully."

They’re pushing for a price hike for electricity consumers — in other words, rate recovery. I asked Kasich "Do you support something like that?"

"No, I’m not going to get into that."

Some other Republicans are talking. A state senator named Kris Jordan calls rate recovery for offshore wind a bad idea.

"I just don’t believe that when we have more affordable, more ready energy sources that government should be subsidizing it."

The Lake Erie tugboat battles four-foot waves on the way out to where the wind turbines would stand. On board, Bill Mason shakes his head at the thought of a natural-gas boom tripping up his project.

"We don’t know how much energy is going to be produced from this fracking," Mason says. "We don’t know the environmental damage that possibly could happen from it. And we don’t know what it’s going to cost, if there is damage, for that recovery. If we take that step down that road, won’t it be nice to know that we have other alternatives such as the wind industry out here on the Great Lakes?"

And wouldn’t it be nice, Mason says, if the center of that industry were Cleveland. For Front and Center, Chip Mitchell, WBEZ.

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