How The Great Lakes Could Drive The Rust Belt’s Economic Future

The region’s greatest asset is also one of its most underutilized.

Photo by Elizabeth Kay on Unsplash

Take a drive east into downtown Cleveland on the West Shoreway, and you’ll see it. There on the lakefront, as you pass by First Energy Stadium, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Great Lakes Science Center sits the future of the Rust Belt economy.

Or at least what could be the future: a large wind turbine.

Photo via The Great Lakes Science Center

In the face of climate change brought on in large part by fossil fuel consumption, the future of the economy in the Rust Belt — and the rest of the world, really — is alternative energy. 

The Great Lakes present a criminally underutilized asset in that regard.

According to a large-scale data analysis and forecasting undertaken by the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania called The 2100 Project: An Atlas for a Green New Deal, some 100 million new people will live in the United States by the end of the century. That’s in addition to the nearly 330 million already making America their home, millions of whom may be forced to migrate to areas like the Rust Belt due to the effects of climate change in other regions.

All of those people, to say nothing of the industries that will employ them, are going to consume energy. Lots of it. According to The 2100 Project, the country would need about 150 million acres of wind farms, or a territory just slightly smaller than the state of Texas, to meet the power needs of the future.

Falling behind already?

The 2100 Project states that “Wind production is most viable offshore (the Atlantic Coast, Pacific Coast, and Great Lakes) with some possibility of wind in the scrub lands of the mid-country. Pockets of good potential wind energy also occur along the Appalachian Mountains and west of the Rockies.”

Image via The McHarg Center

If the Great Lakes offers one of the most viable offshore sites for wind production in the country, why are the states that border the Great Lakes not doing more to grow this forward-looking industry?

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), in its recently released Fourth Quarter Market Report for 2019, states that Texas and Iowa, long the wind power leaders in the United States, both set new records last year for single year wind capacity installations. While Illinois and Michigan were both in the top 10 for new installations in 2019, the rest of the Rust Belt is conspicuously absent.

Image via The AWEA

A lack of support from state lawmakers may be at least partially to blame for the Rust Belt failing to capture momentum. In Ohio, for instance, legislators enacted a freeze of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in 2014, and neutered those standards as well. Language that required half of Ohio’s renewable energy production to come from in-state sources was jettisoned, allowing more out-of-state conglomerates to sell to Ohioans. When the initial freeze expired, lawmakers attempted to extend it, but it was vetoed by then-governor John Kasich.

The United States already lags far behind China, the world’s leading wind energy producer by a large margin, and policies hostile to alternative energy will not help make up the difference. And within America, the Rust Belt region faces stiff competition from the aforementioned Texas and Iowa, as well as states on both coasts, the Great Plains, and the sleeping giant of New York.

An economy in its infancy

Wind power is an industry still largely in its infancy. As demand for fossil fuels decreases, a small army of jobs will need to be created and filled in the wind energy industry — everything from manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of turbines to electrical engineering to supply chain and delivery. The places that lead that charge in alternative energy production are going to gain the lion’s share of those jobs.

One study from the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind claims that construction of the United States’ wind energy supply chain alone could be worth up to $70 billion to businesses.

“America’s offshore wind industry is taking off and what people see now is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Stephanie McClellan, study author and Director of SIOW, at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.

Among the components outlined by the paper for a utility-scale build-out of offshore wind capacity in the United States includes:

  • More than 1,700 offshore wind turbines and towers — $29.6 billion

  • More than 1,750 offshore wind turbine and substation foundations — $16.2 billion

  • More than 5,000 miles of power export, upland and array cables — $10.3 billion

  • More than 60 onshore and offshore substations — $6.8 billion

  • A wide range of marine support, insurance and project management activities — $5.3 billion

Utility giant Giant Electric is already operating or building manufacturing operations for turbines in China, France, and the United Kingdom, and as demand in America grows, finds it “inevitable” that such investments will also be made stateside.

Why shouldn’t Rust Belt states along the Great Lakes like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin reap the benefits of such investments? 

Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash

What is at stake for the Rust Belt cannot be understated. The Great Lakes present a pathway to a thriving economy in the climate change future. Renewable energy has already overtaken the fossil fuel industry in number of jobs, and the cost of renewables has dropped in line with that of fossil fuels. The opportunity is there for those who choose to seize it.

As the wind energy economy continues to grow, the Great Lakes can either be utilized as the asset they are, or the Rust Belt can be left behind.

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