CLEVELAND — A company looking to eventually expand a new wind industry into Ashtabula County has taken a step forward in it's pilot project in Cleveland.
Lorry Wagner, CEO of Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation of Cleveland, or LEEDCo, could say "mission accomplished," now that a European energy conglomerate has pledged to buy and possibly build on the nation's first offshore wind farm, proposed for eight to 10 miles off the Cleveland coast — but there's still more work to do.
If the project is a success, the Ashtabula coast could benefit from new wind industry.
Formed in 2009, LEEDCo's initial goal was to attract outside investment into offshore wind energy development on the lake, Wagner told the Star Beacon. With the recently announced financial backing of Fred. Olsen Renewables of Norway — and the energy leader's recent establishment of a Cleveland-based subsidiary — "it's really the culmination of what our mission has been," he said.
The next step is to contract with the city and coordinate a connection to the Cleveland Public Power grid.
Wagner and Fred. Olsen Renewables CEO David Brunt presented the pilot project Tuesday to the Cleveland City Council and utilities committee — a six-turbine structure dubbed the "Icebreaker," named in part because it seeks to demonstrate that competitive wind energy can be affordable and technologically feasible; also because the "ice cones" are designed to wrap around each turbine, which will push down and melt encroaching ice during winter months.
"We talked about our vision for the industry, the specific regional content that will result from the first project," Wagner said.
Some wanted to know how the region could benefit economically, and whether city customers will actually be getting a better deal on their electric bill compared to current providers.
Wagner said current estimates indicate Cleveland residents could pay about 87 cents more per month within the first year of the Icebreaker's availability, "then each year, that number will decrease until it disappears." Sixteen years down the road, the overall price will be lower than what residents are now paying for power, he said.
And if the Icebreaker pays off for Cleveland, Ashtabula or Lake counties would be an obvious next step for the investing firm, Wagner told the Star Beacon in July. He said a Cleveland Foundation-funded meteorological tower has been measuring wind strength in the area for about a decade, which gives a good snapshot of potential return on investment.
“You build them where there’s the most wind,” he said. “The wind gets better as you go east on the lake — that would indicate Ashtabula has the best wind in Ohio."
County Commissioner Dan Claypool has said he would like the Ashtabula coast to be a central hub for the potential industry.
The nearby ports in Ashtabula and Conneaut could provide cheap, decongested transport routes for wind farm construction or service. There are also several abandoned energy substations that could once again see use. And overall, freshwater wind energy development is a much safer bet than the ocean, Wagner said.
"(Lake Erie is) shallow. It's not far from shore. You don't have the monster waves," he said. "It's really a much better place to develop the industry than in the Atlantic."
LEEDCo is also working with one of the world leaders in ice engineering, Esa Eranti, which erects turbines each year in Finland, where icing conditions are far worse, he said. LEEDCo has also contracted with DNV GL, a Norwegian/German risk mitigation firm, to double-check its engineering research.
Fred. Olsen Renewables, a maritime industrial firm first established in 1848, is essentially six coordinating European companies performing different services in the offshore wind space, Wagner said. He said the firm's ultimate goal is to acquire LEEDCo's assets and the Icebreaker wind farm sometime in the first quarter of next year, but the financials are still being discussed.
The firm is a "good fit" for LEEDCo and the region, he said, partly because it's been able to industrialize the development process, which will make good use of the region's manufacturing and workforce.
"Instead of taking a week to put up a turbine, they can put it up in a day," he said. "There's a high likelihood that, over time, we could service and make many of the components. ... It's really a good reason to build the first project and then be able to develop the skill sets and build the foundation — and then be able to export those to the east coast."
The company is on track to contribute a few million dollars to help "de-risk" the Icebreaker project and confirm its viability, Wagner said. Over the years, LEEDCo has been forced to assume the research and development role and has already commissioned lakebed studies and historical research of ice loads on the lake, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
LEEDCo has also received $10.7 million in federal Department of Energy grants to keep the work afloat until major federal funding is considered down the road, including a new $3.7 million grant to be awarded in March.
Wagner and Brunt will again appear before the Cleveland utilities committee and council to present legislation regarding the project for officials to pass, he said. In the meantime, the partners will continue to flesh out the project design.
"We're thrilled that we've attracted somebody who is an industry leader," Wagner said. "We had to do and will continue to do whatever we have to do, and along the way, (we will) partner with the best people possible."