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How to grow a sustainable energy future

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/10/12 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Clean energy, Transform

What does a sustainable future for energy look like in Northeast Ohio?

If we hope as a region to transition to a cleaner and healthier place, how many anaerobic digesters like the one Forest City and quasar group cut the ribbon on this morning fit in to the renewable energy equation? An airtight tank located at the long-shuttered General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Collinwood, the system digests food waste-to start, ice cream from Pierre's in Cleveland-to make biogas which powers a turbine producing 1.3 Megawatts of energy. Cleveland Public Power has agreed to purchase the power at a competitive 7 cents a kilowatt/hour. It's estimated that 1 Megawatt can power 1,000 homes for an hour.

It's encouraging that Forest City wants to be a renewable energy producer, and plans to break ground on two more anaerobic digesters. With $10.5 billion in assets, Forest City sees its $150 million annual power bill from its buildings as a drain on its bottom line. They take control of that number with an investment, and provide a shot in the arm for an industry here in its birthplace.

It will be interesting to watch if anaerobic digesters can scale up to utility grade power. In that realm, The Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) made some interesting moves recently, jettisoning GE in favor of smaller, but more efficient turbines from Siemens for the proposed wind farm on Lake Erie (Siemens produced turbines for the icy Baltic Sea).

The Great Lakes Wind Energy Network conference happening in Cleveland this week looks at the remaining issues-the biggest being funding – in building out advanced energy systems like the multiple wind turbines producing 4 to 5 Megawatts each a few miles off shore.

How can the Lake Erie wind farm initiative get over the chasm of its funding gap? Do we need a kickstarter campaign or something like it where households pledge their support and buy a share to get the wind farm started?

A big part of the advanced energy future will be reducing our demand for energy. In that vein, the phasing out of T-12 flourescent light bulbs this year is a step in the right direction.

This letter to the PD estimates that Cleveland needs 5,000 1.5 Megawatt (or 1,000 5 Megawatt) wind turbines to replace the four old and dirty coal power plants that FirstEnergy is retiring in our region. It does raise an interesting point-how many turbines can we reasonably build in the lake and along the shoreline?

The study for LEEDCo produced by German company, juwi, estimates it would cost around $80 million (2008 dollars) to do a pilot project of 20 wind turbines in Lake Erie.

In 2011, the installed capacity of wind power in Germany was 29,075 megawatts (MW), about 8 percent of the country's total electrical power-many were citizen funded.

Rather than ask how many turbines does Cleveland need, we wonder, what is a total portfolio approach using renewables that can replace the 2.268 gigawatts of dirty power that FirstEnergy is taking off the grid in the Cleveland area?

Removing that dirty power could bring more 'parity' to renewable energy – meaning the cost for power from a Lake Erie wind farm could go down from two to three times market rate to closer to the same as coal. Doubters of the parity of renewable energy to coal need only look to Cincinnati-the city's recent power purchase agreement accepted a bid to produce 100% of its energy from renewables. The provider? FirstEnergy.

Is Ohio's advanced energy mandate-requiring 25% of electricity generated to come from clean energy sources by 2020-and energy policy spurring enough green power to replace coal-powered plants? Instead of trying to eliminate the state's renewable energy mandate-as some lawmakers in Columbus are attempting to do-we should view the retirement of dirty coal plants as an opportunity to strengthen domestic energy production in all forms, especially in clean renewables, so that every Ohio household can produce and consume its own energy.

Ohio can invest in economic development through the production of local energy in Cleveland and its cities by electing leaders who choose to strengthen our advanced energy policies to be more like New Jersey's.

In New Jersey, incentives are so strong for renewables that roofing companies are jumping into the solar energy business – installing and leasing panels to homeowners who don't have to shell out a dime to get renewable energy. They can sign up for a free solar energy system at the local Home Depot (see this New York Times article)

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