q & a: lorry wagner, president of lake erie energy development corp

With the goal of creating a 20-megawatt wind energy pilot project seven miles offshore from downtown Cleveland, LEEDCo is well on its way to unveiling the first freshwater wind farm in North America. If all goes as planned, this pilot project will lead to additional turbines generating 1,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020.

Writer Patrick Mahoney recently had an opportunity to "shoot the breeze" with LEEDCo president Dr. Lorry Wagner, the driving force behind the project.

What has to happen in order to make the 20-MW pilot project a reality by 2013?

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 terms of potential 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 will these turbines be?

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 with the one at Great Lakes Science Center in terms of size and energy-production?

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 your partners in the project?

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

What are the long-range plans for offshore wind energy production 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 1,000 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 10 to 15 years, so it's definitely in its early days.

What are some of the big challenges you must deal with along the way?

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 wind energy benefit Ohio?

(The following figures come from an economic development report prepared by Kleinhenz & Associates.) 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 so far ahead of its Great Lakes 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? If so, where would it be?

We're going to be about seven and a half miles out in the lake, somewhat northwest of the crib (fresh-water intake). From shore, they will look about the size of a dime on the horizon.

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 10; 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 we can expect a return on the 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.

What's the future hold for wind energy in the U.S.?

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?"

A version of this article recently appeared in hiVelocity.

Photos 1-4:  Bob Perkoski
Images 5 & 6: Courtesy of LEEDCo

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