Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Ohio seeks limelight as next corridor of energy innovation

COLUMBUS, Ohio - New York had its Silicon Alley, Michigan its Automation Alley and Illinois its Silicon Prairie.

Now comes Ohio in the parade of Silicon Valley wannabes.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Gov. Ted Strickland, both Democrats, pledged during their 2006 campaigns to join forces in Washington and Columbus to make Ohio ''the Silicon Valley of alternative energy.''

It was a lofty promise, not unlike ones Ohioans have heard before. Gov. Bob Taft launched his Third Frontier high-tech initiative in 2002, only to need two tries to secure the bond money to pay for it. Ohio later hung its high-tech hopes on landing the nearly pollution-free FutureGen power plant but lost its bid last year.

Factors have aligned that could make alternative energy different.

Congress is expected to respond to the global warming question with caps on carbon emissions - a reality that will force states to grapple with power plant emissions and other pollutants that more wind or sun power could help reduce.

In a gesture of post-campaign cooperation in Ohio, Republican House Speaker Jon Husted created an alternative energy committee, and its chairman, Rep. Jim McGregor, has said he supports reducing the state's dependence on traditional energy sources.

Odd pairings also are uniting behind the goal. City leaders and farmers. Unions and businesses. Environmentalists and industrialists. Democrats and Republicans.

''People are really concerned about everything from high gas prices, home heating prices, the war in Iraq, global warming,'' said Erin Bowser, director of the advocacy group Environment Ohio. ''All of these energy related issues are bubbling up such that energy really is becoming a top priority issue.''

Kimberly Gibson, special energy assistant to Lt. Gov. and Development Director Lee Fisher, said the Strickland administration is lending both financial assistance and practical help to the goal. The Ohio Department of Development has become focused on helping businesses, universities and communities collaborate, she said.

The government will help link producers to potential supply chains, help form trade groups to negotiate as a group for business, and train entrepreneurs in new business skills.

It is that kind of approach that helped foster North Carolina's Research Triangle, said David Winwood, vice chancellor for technology development and innovation at North Carolina State University.

''Research Triangle Park is certainly not an overnight success,'' he said. ''Certainly, it is a worldwide recognized success, but it's almost 50 years old. These are long-term investments, to coordinate these resources and begin that sort of snowballing effect.''

As Ohio envisions alternative-energy greatness, 21 other states have something that it doesn't: government mandated goals for alternative energy use. The state has only one utility-scale wind farm, in Bowling Green.

Those other states could get ahead of Ohio if lawmakers don't act fast on their Silicon Valley promises with their own renewable energy standard, said Environment Ohio's Amy Gomberg.

In the past month, Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado have moved to increase the megawatts of electricity required to be produced using alternative energy at some future date, say 10 percent or 20 percent by 2025.

''You have people from (U.S. Rep.) Marcy Kaptur in Toledo to Sherrod Brown in Cleveland all using this phrase and claiming that they coined it, but one of the reasons we can be the Silicon Valley is because of our manufacturing base,'' Gomberg said. ''That positions us differently than Minnesota or Colorado or New Mexico.''

Bowser said companion bills requiring 20 percent of Ohio's energy come from alternative sources by 2020 have their best chance in years of passage.

Environment Ohio is pushing the case of the Ohio farmer like Ron Wyss, who said the wind turbines he may soon have on his carrot farm outside Ada, Ohio, will mean keeping his vegetable operation profitable as rural land elsewhere goes to mega farms and retail stores.

A test turbine in place for the past two years has determined that a dip on his 1,000-acre farm has gusts of the marketable variety, and it helps that the power grid runs nearby. Studies have shown that Ohio's wind potential is actually greater than that of Germany, where wind farms are in wide use.

If the developer decides to place turbines on the land permanently, he said, each of up to 10 towers could bring a lease of between $5,000 and $6,000 a year.

Ohio's greatest wind potential is where its lagging manufacturing base is: in northeast Ohio and along the Lake Erie shore.

Bowser said wind developers from Germany, Spain and elsewhere are swarming Ohio looking to position their turbines - and experience in states already using wind energy, such as Texas and California, shows that prices have not spiked.

''Where they want to put up wind turbines, they also want the manufacturing of those turbines to be very nearby because it saves on transportation costs,'' she said. ''These things are enormous and very expensive to ship.''

Ralph DiNicola, a spokesman for utility giant FirstEnergy Corp., said consumers seem to be demanding more alternative sources of energy, and his company has contracted for 300 megawatts of wind energy. But he cautioned that wind and solar power can serve only a fraction of the state's energy needs.

''You start doing the numbers on how many windmills would equal 2,000 megawatts of output and you'd cover the state,'' he said.

He said the visual impact of windmills and the fact that they generate most of their power during fall and spring, when demand is low, are issues that advocates must address.

''If a state decides to move in that direction, that's a societal question,'' he said. ''I think what we would object to would be subsidizing alternative energy. In Ohio, generation is not a regulated aspect of the utility industry.''

A study by The Renewable Energy Project found that if there is a national investment in wind power _ which experts believe will happen soon _ Ohio has the chance to gain 22,000 new manufacturing jobs. The 13,000 of those jobs associated with wind power is the largest potential job gain from the industry of any state besides California.

The gain pales in comparison to Ohio's manufacturing job losses - 234,000 since early 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics - but advocates emphasize the additional benefits it could mean in environmental health, reduced dependency on fossil fuels, and efficient land use.

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