Winds of Change

Progressive energy, transit and economic ideas in Ohio look for boost from President Obama’s stimulus plan

As the Age of Barack Obama begins Tuesday with his inauguration as our 44th president, Ohio finds itself tilting at windmills in its quest to reach for the kind of energy-efficient, sustainable, economically healthy future that he believes will get the country out of its calamitous recession.

The future could include airships. And plug-in electric cars. And passenger trains and streetcars. And urban farms and orchards. And home solar systems. And rain barrels for everyone. And reduced reliance on coal. And “complete streets” redesigned for more pedestrians and cyclists. And much more.

These are among the ideas circulating in the state — some far enough along that various state and local officials are seeking funding from Obama’s economic stimulus bill, which is expected to earmark $775 billion or more in spending and tax cuts to revive the recession-hit national economy through investments in such areas as public transportation and energy efficiency.

Some of those well-formulated Ohio ideas are only in the research or study phase. Within Greater Cincinnati, Over-the- Rhine seems to be the right place at the right time for many of the ideas.

“What’s most exciting is the idea of ‘fixing it first,’ ” says Sarah Szurpicki, Detroit-based director of Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), a coalition of post-Boomer urbanists dedicated to the revival of cities in the Great Lakes/Ohio Valley region. “That’s opposed to traditional economic development, which is always about building new things. Now, because we all need to be more efficient and more sustainable, the focus is on reinvesting in the existing infrastructure.”

One thing is certain: Bad as the state’s economy is, there is no shortage of creative ideas for dealing with it and our future. So what follows, then, isn’t an exhaustive study. That would take a book.

This is a snapshot of what some community and environmental activists, political leaders, academics and business entrepreneurs are thinking.

Wind and solar energy

“It’s Ohio’s version of gold,” says Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, the Columbus-based advocate of reformist policies.

He’s speaking of the strong winds that buffet Lake Erie, especially off the shore of Cleveland. As much as Chicago, Cleveland is a windy city.

As the state tries to lessen its dependence on dirty coal and develop clean renewable-energy technologies, a major effort is underway to figure out how to harness that wind. Cuyahoga County has put together a Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force, which is working toward a wind-energy feasibility study conducted by an international wind-development company.

The plan is to build up to 10 wind turbines in the lake, offshore of Cleveland, and an accompanying research center. The task force, chaired by County Prosecutor Bill Mason, includes representatives from Case Western Reserve University.

“Northern Ohio is striving to build the world’s first offshore wind turbine in fresh water and become a center for wind innovation, which can potentially create thousands of manufacturing jobs and attract new business to the area,” says Ryan Miday, the prosecutor’s spokesman, in an e-mail. “Prosecutor Mason sees the pilot project as blazing the trail for developing a new industry and thousands of jobs centered around wind energy in northeast Ohio.”

There are other offshore wind turbines elsewhere in the world, but they’re in salt water.

“The big worry is Lake Erie does ice up, but off Cleveland it’s only 50 feet deep, so they’re looking at it,” says Alan Frasz, vice president of sales and marketing of Athens-based Dovetail Solar & Wind, an Ohio company that designs and installs commercial and residential renewable-energy systems.

Until new technology allows ways to affordably move wind- and solar-produced energy long distances on a grid or to allow recipients to store surplus energy in their homes as part of their base load, the electricity has to be used when produced. That isn’t such a problem for solar, which is produced by the sun during hours of peak use. And, Franz says, Cincinnati is a good candidate for solar, if not wind — it gets an average of 4.4 hours of peak sunlight daily, although that factors in just two daily hours of strong sunlight in winter.

But Ohio’s alternative-energy industry needs economic incentive to compete with cheaper coal, a fossil fuel whose burning emits climate-changing carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas linked to global warming. Here and nationally, efforts are underway to improve the economics through expanded tax credits for installation of home/business solar systems and imposition of limits on coal-derived energy.

The State Legislature last year passed a bill committing Ohio to reducing overall energy production by 22 percent by the year 2025, with 12.5 percent of that produced energy coming from renewable sources. (The law has a “solar set-aside” component: 1/2 of 1 percent of that renewable energy must come from solar.) The law is designed to encourage energy efficiency, thus reducing the need for more utility-company plants as well as spurring alternative-energy production.

Reusing storm water

While wind and solar are among the many energy-related ideas coming to the fore in Ohio, there’s also interest in water conservation. In Cincinnati, that includes ideas to reduce storm water runoff and perhaps the cost of the $3 billion upgrade the Metropolitan Sewer District agreed to spend as part of a 2004 consent decree. In periods of heavy use, because of demand from the storm sewers, sewers carrying raw sewage have overflowed into waterways.

“Maybe we should have a different approach,” says James G. Uber, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Environments in UC’s College of Engineering. “We could encourage at the local level and at the individual parcel level all sorts of infrastructure changes to stop storm water from reaching the sewer system.”

One change would be more green roofs, which can grow plant life that slows down the speed of rainwater runoff. (Both the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Civic Garden Center have plans for green-roof demonstration projects.)

Another, Uber says, is to outfit homes with rain barrels and/or cisterns to catch and store water for use in gardens, yards and possibly even indoor use with proper plumbing adaptations and water treatment. That could also reduce demand on Cincinnati Water Works, especially in summer.

“If you do a flyover from Cincinnati, I’d guess a high percentage of the land area is impervious material — roadbeds, driveways, parking lots, roofs,” Uber says. “A significant fraction of that would be roof, and every one has a gutter and a downspout. It’s as easy for the water from that to go into a 55-gallon rain barrel or a (larger) cistern as to go into the storm-sewer system.”

The Civic Garden Center, by the way, offers rain barrels. It sold 60 or so in 2008.

Rain barrels and cisterns, of course, harken back to a time when Ohioans — and all Americans — lived “a little closer to the ground,” to quote the old rock song by Joy of Cooking. As the notion of sustainability gains traction, especially among locavores who want fresh food grown in their community, there are some interesting ideas in Cincinnati about getting back toward that ideal.

Urban farming

The Civic Garden Center, which has been organizing community gardens since 1980 — there are now 42 — has received a $1,200 private seed grant to help it branch out into an urban orchard for the East End. And it’s working with Metropolitan Sewer District and Over-the-Rhine Community Housing on a rain garden as part of a housing development on Pleasant Street that would slow down storm runoff and offer edible landscaping, like high-bush cranberries.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Crowley is pushing for the city to lease some of its 18,000 vacant parcels to urban farmers — individuals or businesses — who might want to sell their produce commercially, building a job-creating local “industry.” The city administration has recommended a pilot project; it will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of City Council’s Finance Committee.

The private non-profit Corporation for Findlay Market, while working with both Civic Garden Center and Crowley, also is being proactive in trying to satisfy the growing hunger for local food. Buoyed by a $57,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s soliciting up to four people who want to learn how to farm on raised beds in two city-owned lots on Pleasant Street and then sell their fruits/vegetables in season at its local-oriented farmer’s market and sheds.

Begun three years ago, that farmer’s market has seen its number of participants triple to 47, but they can’t produce enough to meet demand. And, because many of those farmers come from nearby counties, not enough are willing to travel to Cincinnati to expand the Saturday market to Sunday, which customers want.

“We decided to seek funding for urban agriculture because our demand far outstrips supply,” says Karen Kahle, Findlay Market’s resource development director. “There’s this whole movement now toward going back to a regional food system. Think of how sustainable it is when produce is grown in your own region rather than being trucked in from all over.”

Better streets, cars, trains and airships

Along the same lines of living a little closer to the ground, GLUE’s Szurpicki is an advocate of the new “complete streets” movement, which views urban roadways as a means to move people — not just cars. The movement believes one aspect of future road repair might be to take away traffic lanes and dedicate the space instead to bike lanes or wider sidewalks suitable for more pedestrians, wheelchairs or seating.

Just as important as the development of renewable energy sources and reuse of urban land is the effort to cut down Ohioans’ reliance on gas-guzzling cars, trucks and SUVS, given their dependence on foreign oil and their contribution to CO2 emissions, traffic jams and a wasteful suburban lifestyle.

There are some seemingly exotic but fascinating plans underway in Ohio to do so. At Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research, a new [email protected] program was launched recently to develop a more affordable — a key word — plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that can charge its battery faster, preferably overnight at home while the commuter sleeps, and get improved performance from that charge.

Another unusual Ohio idea is to revive but modify the airships/zeppelins of old as an ecologically improved way to move cargo long distances, especially overseas or in Third World countries. The concept is called “roadless trucking.” The plan by Robert Rist, co-president of Alliance’s Ohio Airships, is to couple the lift capabilities of energy-efficient, renewable helium, which makes the aircraft lighter, with an airplane’s wings and wheels, solving the landing and take-off problems of the old airships. Once airborne, Rist’s Dynalifters would use less fuel than an airplane to go long distances and carry more cargo.

A scale model was damaged in a windstorm and Rist needs $300,000 to resume testing. But he’s optimistic, last week talking to the Port Authority of Toledo about his plans. He also sees opportunities in this area.

“You have a big airport down there in Wilmington,” he says. “We could use that to bring in cargo from overseas, load up and go back.”

As Obama moves forward with his economic-stimulus plans, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Rail Development Commission is requesting $100 million to start passenger train service between Cincinnati and Cleveland, with stops in Dayton, Springfield, Columbus and maybe Akron and Canton. There hasn’t been such service since 1971, when Amtrak took over national passenger rail service and stopped similar routes.

“Gov. (Ted) Strickland in February asked Amtrak for a study on what it would take to restore passenger service in that corridor,” says Stu Nicholson, a spokesman for the commission. “An Amtrak official said it was one of the most attractive and underdeveloped passenger rail corridors in the U.S.”

While Amtrak still wants ridership/revenue studies from the state, Strickland has asked for federal money to start up three daily round trips, using existing tracks owned by railroad companies. Each train would have a locomotive, two passenger cars and a third cab-control car that could hold passengers and push/pull the train. The rail commission also has more ambitious plans for an Ohio Hub high-speed passenger system.

There might be problems, however, with such a train coming to Cincinnati. Because Union Terminal is near heavily used freight yards, track space through the Mill Creek Valley is at a premium in peak hours. (Amtrak’s The Cardinal, which runs through Cincinnati between New York and Chicago, stops at the train station after midnight three times a week.) As a result, city and state officials are looking at other places for a terminal, such as Longworth Hall near the riverfront.

“Our worry is it might not get into downtown Cincinnati,” says Reggie Victor, a city supervising transportation planner. “It might have to stop in Sharonville or Evendale.”

Stimulating Cincinnati

Cincinnati, meanwhile, has listed several “shovel-ready” transportation projects among the $283 million it believes it could use from any federal stimulus bill. That money, the city estimates, would generate 9,000 to 10,000 new local jobs.

Many of the recommendations come from the Green Cincinnati Plan, a hallmark of Mayor Mark Mallory’s administration that was approved by City Council last June. For instance, $117 million could be used to expand the regional bus system; $4.5 million for the Ohio River Bicycle Trail; $1 million for a section of bike trail along the Mill Creek; and $105 million toward the streetcar line that would connect downtown with University of Cincinnati via Over-the-Rhine.

That last, which is controversial, is a “no-brainer” for the city’s future, says Uber of UC’s Center for Sustainable Urban Environments.

“(A streetcar system) adds something permanent to the infrastructure, moves us toward being a more sustainable city and stimulates development,” he says. “It links an economically depressed area with unused resources — vacant buildings and lots — with the two largest employment centers in the region.”

According to the 2000 census, Over-the-Rhine has 7,500 residents.

“We know Over-the-Rhine in the past has housed 40,000 people,” Uber says. “If we could get 25,000 to 30,000 people to live there, able to not rely on their car but use the streetcar, we’re encouraging sustainable living. I think the city of Cincinnati could be a national leader in showing how older areas can lead us to a lifestyle with a lower carbon footprint.”

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.