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Will county buy into triple-bottom line vision of Lake Erie Wind Farm?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/07/11 @ 10:21am

Last week, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson called on others in the region to join the city as a development partner in the Lake Erie Wind Farm. When Jackson announced that Cleveland's utility, Cleveland Public Power, agreed to purchase 20% of the renewable energy produced by the turbines, he was really making a plea for others in a position like the city to join him. Where are the others who are willing and able to take the decision out of their penny pinching financial offices and invest in a vision that is led by the benefits of clean, renewable energy produced in Northeast Ohio?

In that regard, the Lake Erie Wind Farm and its multi-county development partnership, LEEDCo, is a move in the right direction. It spreads the majority of the funds for each wind farm project to surrounding counties, even though the first wind farm will be built in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. The counties are on-board with that arrangement because the jobs and payroll taxes stay here. In cementing a regional agreement, there is an implied sharing of benefits beyond costs-the profit to public health, the environment and new jobs created are shared across boundaries as well.

Reading between the lines here, the mayor is at the bully pulpit because the city needs big power users to stand behind him and sign power purchase agreements for the first wave of development (estimated to be in the range of 4-5 turbines). Likely his regional economic development director Chris Warren is calling on big manufacturers and institutions (Alcoa, Mittal, Cleveland Clinic, The Regional Sewer District, etc.) and asking them to pay a premium-reportedly in the range of double their current kilowatt hour price-to support a very important green economic development initiative, and burnish their image as a sustainable business.

The city is on board for a number of reasons: The mayor noted that he's investing in the 2019 Sustainable Cleveland vision which shifts Cleveland into economic recovery in part by re-tooling itself as a green manufacturing center. The city realizes that it's in an interesting position as owner of its utility-Cleveland Public Power cannot compete on rates against the big boys like FirstEnergy. CPP has to position itself as an energy services company, and what better way than choosing a direction that is distasteful to FirstEnergy-investing in the future, in renewables, in community and triple-bottom line values at a hyper local level.

The next best question is who else "has to" adopt that mission?

Our source at Cuyahoga County's new government told us last week that FirstEnergy is negotiating its rates with the county. He indicated that the utility will offer rates that are a few cents less per kilowatt than current. We made the case with our county government friend that Cuyahoga's savings should be invested in the power purchase agreement with LEEDco for a wind farm. The county has a mission that goes beyond saving a few cents per kilowatt-it is also investing in health (and clean air is part of that), and it is investing in jobs creation.

The county needs its advocates for the wind farm-particularly those who drove the development in Bill Mason's and the county's economic development department-to make the sell that a triple-bottom line profit awaits the million and quarter residents of the county when we collectively invest in the Lake Erie Wind Farm. As the county mulls the FirstEnergy offer, the council and executive need to have a conversation about what else goes into its balance sheet. As Jackson pointed out, hundreds and eventually thousands of jobs in wind and renewable energy are up for grabs. Hundreds of companies located here are supplying parts to wind turbine manufacturers. And, in a region that has trouble keeping the air clean, environmental metrics come into play as well.

The county has a recent history in paying a premium for a collective good-the quarter cent increase in county sales tax to pay for the new convention center and medical mart. Isn't the Lake Erie Wind Farm another positive investment in a collective good? Otherwise, FirstEnergy and other huge investor-owned utilities will always undercut the mission of the Lake Erie Wind Farm, because it's not in the business of losing customers to Cleveland Public Power (but it can afford to drop rates to the county if it feels threatened by CPP).

In addition to Cuyahoga County, Cleveland may have to take the case directly to wealthy suburbs in Northeast Ohio. It may seem like a tall order to sell to politicians, but Warren has a good case to make to the citizens, from Bay Village to Beachwood where tax revenues are in surplus. Those cities may want to have their names on the marquee-think of the national spotlight as the blimp for the Browns game zooms in on the wind farm and 'Your City' is emblazoned across the towers.

What other big power users in the region are mission-driven? Who is excited about the Lake Erie Wind Farm, and is in a position to put their name on the project, lead with some heart and not only with the penny pinching heads of finance departments?

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