Mr. Leidich said at the outset that the recent acquisition of Allegheny Energy in Pennsylvania had made FirstEnergy the largest utility in the United States by customer count. “What’s even better,” he said, “is that we’re right down the street, headquartered in Akron, Ohio, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Mr. Leidich said that when he started working for what was then the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company more than 35 years ago, one of its slogans was The Best Location in the Nation, “and that still applies.” He also said that for a complex energy company such as FirstEnergy, innovation had to be part of the culture. “We do not have an option but to innovate. We manufacture a product that everyone has to have, electricity, and yet most people think it falls out of the sky. We actually manufacture it, and we have to do it safely, reliably, and cheaply.” He said that the FirstEnergy grid was reliable 99.98 percent of the time, “and that still doesn’t satisfy you.” The utility also has to do it very cleanly, and finally, to do it cost-effectively.
The company is heavily involved in renewables, he said, in both Pennsylvania and Ohio. It had recently announced a wind farm in Erin, Ohio, which is planned to produce 100 Mw of power. It is the largest wind provider in Pennsylvania, making use of the steady winds along the Allegheny Ridge. The company also strongly supports the solar research being done in Ohio, and he said that solar “has to be part of the portfolio going forward.”
Complementary to renewables is storage, he added, and FirstEnergy is developing that sector in partnership with Case Western Reserve “because we think it is a big part of the future challenge. Our duty cycle differs between night and day, and we want to smooth that out, either through storage or smart metering and smart grids.” Finally, Mr. Leidich said, the company partners with the University of Akron in advanced fuel cell research.
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.
But the idea drew no interest from a large utility and potential partner, the American Electric Power Company (AEP).
Winning the Interest of AEP
Mr. Wilhelm said that he thought some more and realized that to run the huge shovels that strip-mined the coal, the coal companies had erected a vast electricity infrastructure, most of which was still in place. “It was a utility-scale solar project waiting to happen,” he realized. He went back to AEP with this idea. “This time you could see that people were starting to sit up and listen.” At the end of the meeting he had an agreement: if he could build a solar plant, the utility would buy its entire output for the next 20 years.
A key objective of the project, Mr. Wilhelm said, is to maximize job creation in the state of Ohio. He said that he planned to buy 250,000 solar panels, and that the likely European manufacturer would base its permanent North American operation in Ohio, creating 350 manufacturing jobs. “We are absolutely building out an Ohio-based supply chain in every instance we can,” he said. “We are a state of steel vendors: we’ll get a supplier to build the racking system to mount these things. Then silver paste: a fundamental ingredient of solar panels. A company in Jackson, Ohio, is the largest silver recycler in the world. Already in Cleveland is a manufacturer of silver paste supplying the solar industry in the U.S. We are going to create a total of at least 650 direct jobs, and probably four times as many indirect jobs.”
Mr. Wilhelm recalled many technologies in which Ohio had been a national leader. The first U.S. oil derrick was built in Ohio; more coal was transported out of Nelsonville, Ohio, than any other train station. “Today,” he said, “when you study this transitional energy economy, you see the opportunities that exist here. We can build nuclear containment vessels; for natural gas, we have the Marcellus shale and the Utica shale; for carbon sequestration, the Mount Simon formation covers much of western Ohio.”
“Just as we once led the world innovating in the old form of energy,” Mr. Wilhelm concluded, “I guarantee you that with the Third Frontier and other current programs this transitional energy period is going to be an exciting new phase in our state’s history.”
Dr. Burbaum said that he grew up during the years of the “space race” when he learned to believe in the good that can come from Federal programs in advanced science and technology. After earning a PhD in chemistry from Harvard University, where he worked on biochemical energetics, he spent the first two decades of his career in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, “which
was the way you went in those days.” He had founded two companies and was working in San Diego as a consultant when he felt the need to do something more challenging. That challenge presented itself in the ARPA-e program, which “completely turned him on” and drew him to Washington in August 2010.
As part of the “wake-up call” he felt at the time was realizing how quickly the U.S. had lost its global leadership in high-technology industries. For example, the technology for lithium-ion batteries was developed at the University of Texas by John Goodenough, who received the Department of Energy’s highest award in 2009. But in that same year, the U.S. produced only about 1 percent of the world’s consumption of lithium-ion batteries, vs. 46 percent by Japan, 27 percent by South Korea, and 25 percent by China. “We developed the technology here, and the manufacturing went elsewhere,” he said. “The same is true for solar photovoltaics. We came up with it; the rest of the world passed us by.”
This realization, Dr. Burbaum said, is what underpins the activities of ARPA-e. It is a small group whose core mission is to support the energy technologies that underlie national security, economic security, and environmental security. The agency was proposed in 2006 in the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report by the National Academies and created in 2007 under the Bush administration. It was not funded at first, but in 2009 the Recovery Act was passed, and Steven Chu, one of the authors of the Academies’ report, argued successfully in favor of funding ARPA-e.15
A Mission to Fill Technical Gaps
ARPA-e was created to fill technical gaps between science and commercialization—to bridge the Valley of Death. It seeks high-impact science and engineering projects that may have high technical risk, investing in the best ideas and teams. “If more research is needed at the end of an ARPA-e project, we say it was not successful. At same time, we don’t want to take technologies already proven out and just figure out how to implement them. We’re looking for disruptive technologies, things that get our technologies onto new learning curves.”
The agency’s mission, as specified in legislation, is to “reduce energy imports, improve energy efficiency, and reduce energy-related emissions.” These objectives, in turn, are designed to enhance the economic and energy security of the U.S. and ensure U.S. technological leadership in advanced energy technologies. “A successful ARPA-e outcome,” he said, “is something that finds a commercial home after we’re done with it. We’re not looking to support these for the long term.”
Organizationally, the agency is distinct from main body of DoE, reporting directly to the secretary. “We try to do things at the speed of business,”
15Dr. Chu is now secretary of energy.
Dr. Burbaum said. “Our goal is to get from conception of an idea to beginning execution of the program in six to eight months. That is very fast, and we do that by a particular process. We go through a ‘deep dive’ into the work, then run a workshop to gather ideas and calibrate whether this is a realistic program. This is followed by internal debate, and then a funding opportunity. We evaluate proposals, and then offer a rebuttal stage, letting people with novel ideas come back and explain to us again why the idea will be revolutionary. Then we select projects and negotiate payments in the form of contracts, not grants.”
An ARPA-e project has four parts:
- Impact: “We ask not will this project work, but if it works, will it matter. We are looking for high impact on ARPA-e mission areas or large commercial application.”
- Breakthrough technology: “We look for technologies that do not exist in today’s energy market, and may be not just incremental but game-changing, making today’s technologies obsolete.
- People: “Projects that have attracted the best-in-class people, teams with scientists, engineers, and business people; teams that bring new people, talent, and skill sets to energy R&D.”
- Additionality: “Projects that are not already being done by others, but are difficult to move forward without DoE funding and able to attract cost share and follow-on funding.”
The funding opportunity process, Dr. Burbaum added, is fast-paced, but it is deliberative. The agency starts with a concept paper that is sent out for review. Full applications come back, and are reviewed internally. Then questions are posed to the applicant, who has a chance to answer them before final selections are made. Selections are made by consensus and defense—not by the ranking system used for grants.
Once selection is announced, it is followed by a negotiation that sets aggressive milestones for the project. In the words of one ARPA-e performer, “ARPA-e has consistently impressed and surprised us with the speed of their evaluation and contracting process and the high caliber of their staff…We wish all R&D programs could adopt this degree of efficiency and professionalism.” Dr. Burbaum added, “We want performers to get that sense of urgency. We’re the ‘urgency agency.’”
ARPA-e’s Active Management Tools
The program also uses active management tools to promote eventual project success. “It’s not just a matter of putting the money out and saying get back to us and tell us when you’ve achieved your milestones,” Dr. Burbaum said. “We go in and actively manage projects. We look for synergies, make introductions, and try to get these projects to a commercial milestone at the end
of the funding period. We make at least two site visits per year, and hold formal quarterly reviews. This helps identify and resolve technical issues.”
When ARPA-e began operation, it issued a broad solicitation that drew 3,700 concept papers. It requested 350 full proposals, and funded 37 of them for about a 1 percent success rate. Projects were supported in 10 energy areas: renewable power, vehicle technologies, solar fuels, carbon capture, biomass, energy storage, conventional energy, water, waste heat capture, and building efficiency.
After that first solicitation, it set out to create more targeted portfolios, beginning with transportation. It asked for proposals in electrofuels, a way of using biology to form carbon-carbon bonds and fix carbon efficiently, combined with direct current electricity to generate liquid fuels. It also asked for proposals on Battery Efficiency and Electrical Storage (BEEST). This focuses on novel ways of, for example, air conditioning buildings, “an energy-inefficient process that hasn’t been much improved in the last 80 years.” The next focus was three projects on stationary power. Another, called IMPACCT, is a project to bring the cost of carbon capture down to the price of carbon dioxide on the open market. Finally, GRIDS is an expandable storage process for renewable fuels.
“We fund universities, small and large businesses, national labs, and nonprofits,” said Dr. Burbaum. “We’ve made 121 awards to date from seven FOAs with a total value of $366 million.”
Funding Opportunities at ARPA-e
At present, four different funding opportunities have been placed on the ARPA-e website since late 2010. The first is power electronics in photovoltaic systems (2/8/11). This is called Agile Delivery of Electronic Power Technology (ADEPT), and seeks to use silicon chips to miniaturize the electronics that have been traditionally done by large transformers. “All portions of the system are being adjusted; the inverter, the transformer, the associated power. We’re looking at 5 to 6 cents/kWh installed at the megawatt scale by 2020.”
The second program is High-Density Advanced Thermal Storage (1/31/11). Much thermal energy is presently produced and wasted as heat, and the project is searching for new uses for waste heat in vehicles and buildings, and synergies between solar and high-temperature nuclear energy.
Third, Green Energy Network Integration (12/13/10) seeks to make the electrical grid “look more like the Internet.” The grid suffers from congested lines, aging infrastructure, unreliability, unpredictability, and increasing outages. In theory, energy transported around the world in “packets” would be more reliable and flexible than present systems, and able to absorb electricity at different points in the system.
The Critical Materials Technology (12/6/10) program has several projects. One of them, the Rare Earth Alternative Critical Technologies, tries to address the threat of lost access to rare materials by looking for new sources and replacements.
Dr. Burbaum closed with a brief description of his own project, Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, or PETRO. “In using biofuels today, we create biomass which is hard to digest and then use biology to convert it to fuel,” he said. “We’re trying to shortcut that and engineer the plants to produce fuel directly and use their energy more efficiently. There are three ways to do that: adjust absorption by making the leaves darker or black; adjust metabolism so plants make fuel directly; and harvest plants as we do in agriculture but optimize them genetically to develop crops that are competitive with corn and sugar cane.”
LEEDCo, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, is a private, nonprofit enterprise dedicated to making Cleveland a national and perhaps international leader in offshore wind power. Dr. Wagner, a former nuclear engineer, confessed that when he first heard about the project, he was more than skeptical that offshore wind could ever be meaningful in the Midwest. In the last several years, however, he has become not only a believer, but a leader.
Dr. Wagner recalled his early conversations with Ronn Richard, CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. “I admit that when he told me about offshore wind, I thought he was crazy. But in 2005 he put up the wind turbine outside the science center, and I began to pay attention. Today I know that Ronn had a great vision. It’s going to take everything in our power to generate the electricity we need, and this can be one source. The Great Lakes have the potential to provide enough offshore wind to power the entire country. That isn’t going to happen, but it gives an idea of the vast potential we have. Maybe we’ll tap one percent of that, or 10 percent, but the resource is available.”
Dr. Wagner was in London the previous week, he continued, “the epicenter of the world’s offshore wind industry,” and found high interest LEEDCo. “They admire the Midwest,” he said, “they admire Ohio, and they admire our ability to get the job done. That’s why I still live here. This place is amazing.”
LEEDCo has been created by the Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force, a large partnership including the Cleveland Foundation, NorTech, Lake County, Ashtabula County, Cuyahoga County, Lorrain County, and the city of Cleveland. If it is successful in building and installing its initial 20-to 30-megawatt pilot project, it will be the first offshore freshwater wind energy project in North America.
A True Public-private Partnership
“We are that true public-private partnership that we’ve been talking about at this meeting,” said Dr. Wagner. “I started out as a nuclear engineer. I had a lot of dreams, and I still believe in nuclear, but I don’t see it filling the need. It will take everything in our power just to maintain the nuclear share of 20 percent. The effort required to replace 100 aging nuclear plants is monumental. And unfortunately the cost of nuclear went up significantly with the crisis in Japan. What will happen with natural gas and coal, I can’t predict. But there is a great opportunity for renewables, and that’s why we’re here. We need secure power, and it has to be affordable.”
If Ohio is new to offshore wind, it did set the pace in onshore wind as long ago as the 1876, when local inventor Charles Brush erected the first electric wind turbine on downtown Euclid Avenue. It was not until In the 1970s that NASA Glenn in Ohio advanced the technology further, and in 1979 built the largest wind turbine in the world. But the Federal government did not fund wind technology, and leadership moved abroad to Denmark, England, and elsewhere.
Offshore Wind ‘Is the Next Big Thing’
“This is the next big thing,” asserted Dr. Wagner. “It is happening right now in Europe. If I were to suggest to any VC here that they should fund a $100 billion industry that has created over 40,000 jobs and been incubated for the last 20 years, I would think it would have a chance if we get the cost right.”
Offshore wind is happening in Asia as well, he continued, where governments have invested some $30 billion. “That’s a lot more than we’re doing,” he said. He added that “the most fascinating number I’ve heard” is that France, which provides more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and has no real need for offshore wind, has just decided to invest $13.6 billion in the technology. “Do you think they’re doing this to be green? I think it’s because they don’t want to be left out of the industrial revolution happening in Europe.”
Dr. Wagner said that Asian countries plan to dominate the industry by 2015, and that Sinovel, part of a large heavy industry company in China, has vowed to be number one in the world. In the past five years China has surpassed 30 years of U.S. investment in onshore wind, and by 2015 plans to have built nine times our current capacity. “Why are they doing this?” he asked. “Econ 101: the technology is proven, sales go to North and South America, and jobs and profits stay at home.” Similarly, he said, South Korea plans to build an $8.2 billion offshore wind farm.
Dr. Wagner asked why, in the face of such competition, should Cleveland be of interest. A lot of work had been done before he came to
LEEDCo 11 months earlier, he said, with the vision laid out in 2004. “A lot of great people have done a lot of good work, and our partners are world class. They are GE, Bechtel, which is the largest engineering construction firm in the U.S., Cavallo Energy, Great Lakes Wind Energy, and a host of others.”
In addition to the large industrials, LEEDCo has a research consortium that is scheduled to grow over time, and some 100 strategic advisors. One of these is Great Lakes Towing, for example, which has been operating for more than a century and understands the safety and navigational issues of Lake Erie better than any organization.
“There’s a true advantage in being the first mover,” Dr. Wagner said. “The primary infrastructure is going to be built where the first wind farms go. We want to capture the majority of the jobs, using the talents we have. We want Ohio to become the epicenter. Once the industry starts operating we will learn how to cut costs. We’re going to take something that is growing in the rest of the world, bring it here, and make it happen.”
The Potential for Job-creation
Dr. Wagner said that a NorTech-funded impact study by Kleinhenz &Associates estimated that LEEDCo could create about 8,000 jobs by 2030 if it developed 5 GW of power. That amount, he said, is approximately 10 percent of the potential for the Ohio waters of Lake Erie, or about 1 percent of what’s available in the entire Great Lakes. Currently, he said, Ohio is second or third in the country in manufacturing jobs for onshore wind, totaling about 7500 jobs in the state. When that total was compiled, the only wind farms were near Bowling Green, which is now being supplemented by additional activity in western Ohio.
Mr. Wagner said that the Cleveland region was “really good at doing this kind of work,” with good facilities for ports, large-scale construction, project fabrication, and staging. This would provide jobs for hundreds of Clevelanders, while later projects should employ thousands of Ohioans. More than half the jobs would come from associated services outside manufacturing, jobs that cannot be exported.
“For the current project,” he concluded, “we’re starting small, about seven miles off downtown Cleveland, with about five wind turbines. We received our submerged land lease option last January. The project will be three nautical miles long.” He showed a picture of an offshore nacelle, weighing 220 tons, presently the world’s largest offshore turbine blade, now used in a GE machine off Norway. “The new ones will be 50 percent larger than this,” he said in closing. “These cannot be hauled on the highways, so everything is going to have to be done in or near the ports. And we are ready for that.”
Dr. Wessner asked Mr. Leidich of FirstEnergy if he would invest in wind power or solar power, given the uncertainties of forward pricing. Mr. Leidich said his company was very active in renewables, but agreed that the economics were a significant challenge. “You have to look at the long term,” he said. “We would invest nothing if we looked at just the spot price of oil or gas. We’re not inactive in renewables, but we’re not doing everything people want us to do. We are active on the LEEDCo board, and trying to help work through the process.”
Dr. Wessner also asked Dr. Wagner how he would be able to compete with Chinese industry on price, given the lower costs and lighter regulations in China. Dr. Wagner said that an offshore industry did not necessarily have to be competitive on price from the outset. “The first nuclear plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, cost 50 cents/kwHr in 1957, while the cost of nuclear today is arguably 3 to 4 cents. The offshore wind industry is in its infancy. The machines will become so large that they cannot be transported from China. The question is: Will the companies that are making offshore wind turbines be American owned or Chinese owned. They will be built here.” He agreed that the price of offshore wind has to come down; “we have to be at least half of where we are now to even be in the game.”
An ‘Incredibly Collaborative’ Process
A questioner asked about the experience of Cape Wind, in Massachusetts, which has gone through 12 to 15 years of regulatory and permitting problems. Dr. Wagner said that the Ohio regulatory experience had been different so far, with much more engagement at every level. “This has been a public engagement process since the beginning, a bottoms-up approach. The community, business leaders, the state, regulatory groups, and power siting board have been incredibly collaborative. We met with the Council on Environmental Quality, and at the end of the discussion, they said we were the first group that came to us and said that government is doing something right.”
Mr. Wilhelm said that, as someone who is still new to new energy development, he felt it would be possible to meet renewable power standards and do little of lasting benefit for Ohio. For example, the renewable portfolio standard could be met while buying equipment from abroad, which would not help local businesses. He praised AEP, First Energy, and others for focusing on such issues and trying hard to maximize the local and regional economic benefit associated with these projects.