Mr. Wilhelm discussed his desire to build up an alternative energy industry in the southern Ohio region where he grew up, and where few economic opportunities are available on land ravaged by decades of mining. He then described ambitious plans to develop a solar project “that will be the largest ever constructed east of the Rockies when it is finished in 2014.”
He began with the dramatic story of how he had come to this vision with virtually no prior experience in solar energy. He grew up in Athens County, in Appalachian Ohio, and had spent much of his life trying to find a way to stimulate economic growth there. “If you grow up there,” he said, “you know the economic history and it is a sometimes painful history,” beginning in the days when southern Ohio became the leading source of iron produced in the U.S. “In order to produce that iron,” he said, “we cut down every tree in the region to create charcoal for the furnaces. That iron “allowed the North to win the Civil War,” Mr. Wilhelm continued, and “built wealth and mansions in places like Pittsburgh and New York City. But at the end of the day, that industry was not sustainable; there were no trees left, and the people of southeast Ohio, as hard as they worked, did not share in the wealth that was created.”
Hoping to Heal a Degraded Region
Then came the era of coal, which further degraded the region. “No people worked harder than the people of southeast Ohio to build this country. They worked themselves sick, and at the end of the day, the nation prospered, more mansions were built, and industrial growth was assured. God bless those people who worked in those mines, but it was not sustainable. So as a child of southeast Ohio I’ve thought about this a lot, and wondered what we could do to make things different.”
The first answer he came up with was to generate economic benefits through entrepreneurial capacity building, taking Ohio-based ideas and turning them into Ohio-based businesses run by Ohio workers. Mr. Wilhelm founded a venture capital fund called Adena Ventures, which worked closely with Ohio State University and the University of Akron. It produced seed funds, early-stage funds, emerging angel networks, and operational assistance providers in southeast Ohio. “There are new small businesses,” Mr. Wilhelm said, “and many people now aspire to be entrepreneurs. That was one answer.”
Another answer was to build on local assets. He recalled talking with a friend about those assets, which amounted to 80,000 acres of reclaimed mine land. In pondering how they could create value from that land, they thought of planting mixed prairie grasses to regenerate the soil and absorb carbon dioxide.