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Q&A: LEEDCo's Lorry Wagner on the potential of Lake Erie wind

Dr. Lorry Wagner, President of LEEDCo. Photos Bob Perkoski
Dr. Lorry Wagner, President of LEEDCo. Photos Bob Perkoski

What has to happen between now and 2013 to make the project a reality?

LEEDCo is actively engaged in completing submerged land lease negotiations; environmental studies on fisheries, ice conditions, and avian/bat populations; and Power Purchase Agreement negotiations with local utilities. These activities, in addition to obtaining approval from various state and federal agencies, are vital to the project's success.

How does Lake Erie compare with other places around the country in its potential for wind energy?

It does pretty well, for a number of reasons. There's a large area down the center of the lake that has pretty good windspeed. The lake is reasonably shallow, and the distance to shore and substations is not all that far. Also, we don't have hurricanes so it stacks up well, compared with other parts of the country.

How large are these turbines?

They'll be on an 85-meter tower, plus about 10 meters from the floor of the lake, with blades about 55 meters long. So, they'll be just under 500 feet high. (Each turbine will have three blades.)

How do the proposed turbines compare in size and in their ability to create electricity with the turbine at the Great Lakes Science Center?

Power-wise, the turbine at the science center is about one-twentieth, and height-wise it's about one-third of the size of the offshore turbines. Twenty years ago, that was the mainstay, which shows how far the industry has come.

Who are the project's partners?

Bechtel Development, Inc., Cavallo Great Lakes Ohio Wind, LLC and Great Lakes Wind Energy, LLC make up Freshwater Wind, LLC, which will own and develop the project.

What are the long-range plans for offshore wind in Ohio?

The long-range plan is to build an industry that captures a majority of the economic development. That's a long-term process and a lot to hope for. But our first target is to get a thousand megawatts in the water by 2020 . . . and build the industry from there. We're starting with a small 20 megawatt project.

Can you put 1,000 megawatts in some kind of perspective?

Yes. 1,000 megawatts would satisfy something like two percent of the state's needs. It's not a huge piece, but you have to start somewhere. Onshore wind has had a 30-year run and solar [power] has had ten to fifteen years, so it's definitely in its early days.

What are the challenges to making that goal a reality?

There are certainly more than one. Challenges range from getting people to understand there is a huge opportunity here, to developing the permitting pathway, all the way to financing . . .We're in a time, due to the recession, when energy demand is down, but energy needs will go up. We have a 10-year plan and it's difficult, when prices are depressed, to say: 'Hey, we have a solution that will eventually be cost-competitive.'

Are you looking beyond 2020?

Absolutely. Our economic study, which was commissioned by Nortech, looked at having 5,000 megawatts in Ohio waters by 2030.

How would that benefit Ohio?

(Editor's note: For the impact of the project, Wagner referred hiVelocity to the economic development report prepared by Kleinhenz & Associates . A LEEDCo news release last summer projected that the new wind farm could result in 600 new jobs by 2012. Expanding the farm to 1,500 megawatts would create or maintain 3,000 jobs in Ohio -- and increasing it to 5,000 megawatts would generate as many as 8,000 new jobs.)

Why is Ohio ahead of its neighbors?

The process started around 2004, with public engagement and vetting the idea, so there's been a lot of support built up among the stakeholders, and several years of engagement with the permitting agencies. The wind data has been collected and much of the environmental data. No other project in the Great Lakes has the combination of those components.

Has a site for the wind farm been determined? Where? Will the farm be visible from shore?

We're going to be about seven and a half miles out in the lake, somewhat northwest of the crib. From shore, they will look about the size of a dime, on the horizon. (The "crib," which is the place from which fresh water is pumped from the lake, is visible from downtown Cleveland.)

What impact will the turbines have on the environment, especially marine life and birds?

In Europe it has been demonstrated that wind turbines become wonderful artificial reefs. I think it will become a destination for boaters and sailboats. All indications are that birds will fly over or around these turbines. Studies indicate that 80 percent of bird deaths are from wildlife. A typical cat takes out ten; a typical building takes out 500; a typical wind turbine takes out one per year. In reality, every time the turbines generate power we're not putting mercury into the environment, from coal plants.

How long before you expect a return on investment?

This is a pilot project, as opposed to a typical large-scale project. Typical on-land projects have a payback in the seven- to 10-year range, based on a 20-year financial model. This will clearly be longer than that.

Will the electricity produced by the wind farm lower our electric bills?

Initially, because this is a pilot project, no. We're probably talking 2020 before we get to the point where it will be competitive. The advantage with wind energy is that you have a cost of energy, which is flat, for a 20 to 40-year period because there are no fuel costs.

When do you expect to complete the project?

We hope to be in the water or to have the project operating by the end of 2013.

Is there anything you would like our readers to know about the project that I didn't think to ask?

The industry is growing dramatically in Asia and Europe. People used to laugh about onshore wind 10 years ago, unless you lived in California. Wind power is coming to the United States and the question is, 'Do we want to be in front of it or behind it?'

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