Renewable Energy Could Revitalize the Mahoning Valley

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

The Youngstown community, grappling with its 38% poverty rate, is trying to bring manufacturing back to the Mahoning Valley and tap into the multibillion dollar oil and gas industry.

There are some people who think renewable energy is mutually exclusive from this goal. Felicia Armstrong, Alan Jacobs and Colleen McLean, professors in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, argue that it isn’t.

Armstrong and McLean pointed out that the oil and gas industries aren’t as big in this area as they’re made out to be, citing a March 25 Vindicator article by Justin Dennis, “Study expects new industries yet few jobs to replace Lordstown.”

“Oil and gas are not going to provide jobs,” McLean said.

The Vindicator stated oil and gas play was only responsible for 1,260 jobs in 2017, according to a Cleveland State University study released March 6.

“Most of the work is in upfront, capital-intensive construction, [Genna Petrolla, economic development program manager for Eastgate Regional Council of Governments], said. Once pipe is laid, workers go home,” the article said.

The article also said that oil and gas exploration and small “legacy” steel and aluminum manufacturing only account for 3% of the Youngstown metropolitan area’s workforce.

Armstrong and McLean believe that to bring manufacturing back to the Mahoning Valley, the community should look toward a future in renewable energy.

“Think of the jobs,” McLean said. “Think if we manufactured solar panels or wind turbines in Youngstown. Think of all of those manufacturing jobs. We have the infrastructure for it, with our highway and railway system. We are just sitting and waiting to do this.”

However, Armstrong, Jacobs and McLean also face the question, “Is renewable energy actually feasible for Youngstown?” They agree that it can work and is working now, but the conventional large wind turbines and expansive solar farms are not the ways renewable energy would be successful in Youngstown.

“We think of wind energy as the great big windmills,” Armstrong said. “There are ones they put on top of buildings that look like corkscrews, so as wind passes over the building, it turns generators. We can utilize wind energy here, it just has to be the right design in the right placement.”

Jacobs said that wind energy pays for the equipment and installation costs within 12 years, and the costs to maintain the windmills are minimal. Youngstown doesn’t have enough consistent wind for large windmills to produce enough energy, but small windmills installed by buildings where the wind is tunnelled can easily cut energy costs.

“Moser Hall has solar panels on the roof that even with our cloudy weather contributes power to the grid,” Jacobs said.

Though clouds cover the sun and let less sunlight through, sunlight is refracted through the clouds’ water molecules and scattered through the atmosphere. That’s why people still get sunburned on cloudy days, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.

Armstrong and McLean also pointed out that there are variations to the typical solar panel. People are increasingly investing in solar powered water heaters for their homes. The holding tank is on the roof and solar panels generate the energy for heating.

The Department of Energy said a renewable energy system can easily increase property values by $15,000. While residential windmills and solar powered water heaters can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars upfront, it’s an investment to save money on energy in the long run and to increase property values.

If community outcry in response to the closing of the General Motors Lordstown plant indicates anything, it’s that Youngstown is looking for an investment.