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Cleveland's talent or Sputnik?

 |  01/13/11 @ 2:47pm

The Danish Wind Industry Association hails Charles F. Brush (1849-1929) as a pioneer in the wind energy industry. Not a local history buff? Born in Euclid, Cleveland-based engineer Charles Brush built what is today believed to be the first automatically operating wind turbine for electricity generation in 1887. Stationed in Cleveland, the specifications of this massive turbine included a 50-foot rotor and 144 blades, generating a whopping 12 kilowatts (kW).

In 1974 NASA's Glenn Research Center based in Cleveland, paved the way for large horizontal-axis wind turbines (used today). This time a 100-kW turbine at Plum Brook Station in Sandusky appeared on the horizon. By 1981 NASA's research gained international acclaim as it improved to 4 megawatts (MW), a world record until several years ago. Despite its progress, the program was abandoned by the U.S. government. Essentially, the Danish "caught wind" of this and ran away with it. In two cases (a century apart) Cleveland was at the cutting edge of wind turbine technology. This opportunity feels like "the one that got away."

Well guess what? It did. That turbine took its talent to Europe and is soon to be all over Asia. Of the $20.8 billion invested globally in wind energy for 2010, China invested $10 billion. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu regards renewable energy technology investment in the U.S. as a "Sputnik moment." Will wind energy remain Ohio's Sputnik?

Ironically, Brush's Electric Company merged with companies that eventually formed General Electric (GE). It should seem as no accident that a partnership between Cleveland-based Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) and GE was formed in 2010. GE is scheduled to supply the turbines that were once ours (or should I say twice). LEEDCo was formed in 2009 as a non-profit, private development corporation leading efforts to deploy a 20-MW wind project in Lake Erie. The ultimate goal is to lower costs and capture the emerging industry for subsequent growth in Ohio. Third time's a charm? Fate? Whatever cliché works for you, Ohio needs this wind in our sails.

Consider, the first freshwater offshore turbines in Lake Erie as a MVP trophy, but it is really the regional economic development championship that is at stake. Competitors along the Eastern seaboard and Great Lakes (Canada included) are joining the race to bring home the industry. Why don't we manufacture the turbines here, lease the equipment (vessels), garner the intellectual skills, and then export those skills (talents) to all of the regions' projects? And since sports are an underlying theme here, consider our Great Lakes rivals: let's say Michigan and Wisconsin, to name a few.

The glass is half full and challenges can be met with opportunity. Challenge: Ohio passed a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard whereas 12.5 percent of our energy must come from renewable sources by 2020. Opportunity: Utilize Ohio's manufacturing strengths to drive our local economy and energy independence. Why are we still waiting for Washington to wave its magic wand and send us that care package with thousands of jobs? If we don't build it, other states and Canada will develop the industries and skills to dominate the landscape.

Here's what Northeast Ohio's role in turning the 'Rust Belt' into a 'Wind Belt' looks like. LEEDCo's goal of 1000 MW of wind capacity in Lake Erie will create a variety of jobs ranging from manufacturing, cabling, maintenance, engineering, construction and research & development (R&D). How? Again, challenges become economic opportunity. For example, if a European jack-up vessel barge won't fit through the St. Lawrence Seaway (which is a current challenge); building the vessel in one of Ohio's Lake Erie Ports becomes an opportunity. If ice formation on Lake Erie presents a structural problem for turbines ? the strength of Ohio's R&D Universities can solve it, in addition to other research-driven market barrier removal. With no offshore wind projects in U.S. waters, it is no wonder cost-competitiveness is an issue. No energy technology is competitive at inception until economies of scale takeover; the question is where this economy of scale will happen. Even the highly revered refined "clean" coal is subsidized at an output cost of $29.81/MWh compared to wind's $23.37 (EIA 2007).

Global offshore wind markets are here, and the question is whether we will build the industry domestically or continue to import power and its parts from overseas. China and Korea have already decided they want to dominate this industry by 2015. While the initial 20-MW project, seven miles offshore Cleveland, seems like just a 'drop in the bucket,' let me remind you that we're batting with two strikes. The project (scheduled for 2012) consisting of five direct-drive GE turbines has ripened to demonstrate an Ohio-based wind energy industry is ready to grow, but will not turn an investment overnight.

As a region, let's focus on winning a different kind of 'championship' and get behind the LEEDCo team as they seek to break the wind "Curse" by optimizing the economics of both job creation and cost-competiveness in order to bring the benefits of wind energy back to Ohio where it began. As George Santayana famously said, Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

By Donny Davis, LEEDCo

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