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A mighty wind: thousands pledge to buy wind-fueled power

 Lake Michigan wind farm
Lake Michigan wind farm - Just Add Light on Flickr
As the nation's first freshwater offshore wind project cranks up off the coast of Cleveland, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) wants to know: Are you ready to take The Power Pledge?
Apparently, some folks are more than willing to purchase a portion of their future electricity needs from the project known as "Icebreaker," set to erect five to nine wind turbines in Lake Erie by 2017. Almost 4,500 people from Northeast Ohio have signed up on the LEEDCo website since April, with a promise to pay a little more for a power source supporters believe can improve the environment, create local jobs and advance the nation's energy security.
While there is no obligation or cost to take the pledge, those who give their signatures will stand as early adopters when wind power becomes available through their local power providers, says Dave Karpinski, LEEDco's VP of operations since January.
"We went door-to-door canvassing communities along the lakefront," he says. "The good response proves there's a market for this."
Positive gauge of community support in tow, LEEDCo's next step is to present the idea to the 35 companies selling electricity in the region. Organization officials already have had encouraging discussions with a handful of smaller suppliers and plan to approach larger power entities in the near future.
Statewide electric deregulation means that if one company isn't interested in wind power, there are others available to push a power-producing undertaking projected to create 1,500 megawatts and over 6,000 jobs by 2025.
"That's the exciting part," Karpinski says. "We reached 4,000 people just from a few months of knocking on doors. If we have a company helping us market, just think what we can do."
A new industry
Preliminary work has begun on foundations for the 3-megawatt Siemens wind turbines, set to be raised in Lake Erie seven miles offshore. Manufacture and fabrication of the turbines will take place onshore, while actual construction will occur in the water. The elongated timeframe stems partially from the protracted engineering and permitting process, but LEEDCo officials say the venture remains on schedule.
"From where I sit, we're on track with our plans," says Karpinski.
Being able to produce a sustainable enterprise in a timely fashion will be critical to accruing future funding, notes the LEEDCo VP. In December, the nonprofit organization won a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) and secured another $1 million from private partners to put Icebreaker into motion.
In May 2014, the DOE will provide an additional round of financing -- upwards of $46 million -- to each of three offshore wind developments deemed worthy of further investment. LEEDCo leaders believe they have an edge on the competition through creation of a regional industry that will generate 500 construction, installation and permanent jobs and produce $79.9 million in gross regional product.
"And that's just the beginning of where we think this can go," says Karpinski. "There's an opportunity for economic growth as a leader in [wind-generated power]. Couple those two things together and it's pretty compelling."
In it together
Besides the folks who have signed up for the Power Pledge, locally generated wind power has political backing as well, Karpinski notes. LEEDCo, founded in 2009 as a nonprofit organization, represents a public and private partnership. Members of the organization include the counties of Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Lorain and Lake, the City of Cleveland, The Cleveland Foundation and NorTech.
On August 22, LEEDCo hosted an event at the Cleveland Convention Center called "POWER UP for Offshore Wind." Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) were on hand to listen to the latest project updates and encourage more people to take the pledge.
Clean electricity will not be an inexpensive prospect, at least at first. Wind-generated energy will cost the average homeowner two or three times the current rate on the family power bill. Karpinski compares the early adopter price hike to other innovations that cost more at launch until engineering was scaled up.
"Big-screen televisions used to cost thousands of dollars," he says. "Offshore wind is a brand new source of electricity. The first version is never the most cost-effective. That's the challenge for us."
With optimistic forecasts of thousands of megawatts coursing through Northeast Ohio homes, as well as thousands of jobs this type of power can create, Karpinski sees offshore wind power serving as nothing less than a mighty regional catalyst.
"This project positions us to be a true leader in the country," says Karpinski. "It can unlock the potential of the Great Lakes region."
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