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Cuyahoga County to launch solar, freshwater investments to spur green economic growth

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne looks to his right on the stage at Jacobs Pavilion. An American flag is in the foreground.
Michaelangelo’s Photography
Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne’s first State of the County address, held outdoors on the banks of the Cuyahoga River on Friday, June 30, 2023, was postponed two days due to unhealthy air quality caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires.

Cuyahoga County will launch two new programs intended to make the area more climate-friendly. County Executive Chris Ronayne made the announcement Wednesday at the Climate Leadership Conference currently underway in Cleveland.

The Solar for Schools program will allow five districts to tap into grant funding to install solar panels to lower energy costs.

"It is also an opportunity to teach, to teach our children about ways of the future and also listen," Ronayne said.

Solar panels will be installed at high schools in Maple Heights, Euclid, Cuyahoga Heights and East Cleveland, Interim Director of Sustainability Valerie Katz said. The fifth school district has not yet been announced.

The county selected schools identified as "energy justice communities," Katz said, where they were historically overlooked for climate and energy investments.

"We really wanted to work with schools in areas where we don't see a lot of solar to help bring solar energy to these communities," she said.

Though some may think Northeast Ohio simply isn't sunny enough for solar power, Katz said the region gets enough sunlight to benefit from an expanded network of solar panels.

"We do get plenty of sun in the summer, in the spring and in the fall, and we do have our sunny days in the winter as well," she said. "When you look at the accumulative amount of sun that we get over the period of a year, we definitely have enough sun to make solar work and pay off here in Northeast Ohio."

The program is supported by a $150 million grant from the Department of Energy, along with a partnership with Growth Opportunity Partners, a Cleveland-based, Black-led green bank.

A green bank is a financial institution that connects private businesses with funding opportunities to better implement climate-friendly practices.

Last month, Growth Opportunity Partners announced it is leading a collaborative called the Industrial Heartland Solar Coalition program to bring solar panels to low-income residents in 31 communities across eight states.

During his speech Wednesday, Ronayne recalled a conversation with his son who asked what could be done about climate change.

“I took that so seriously,” Ronayne said, "because ... one, he's learning about it most importantly, two, he's thinking about what we were doing, but three, he looked up almost as a generation and said, 'What are you doing about it?'"

Ronayne also highlighted the goals of a Fresh Water Institute he said will foster stewardship around Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River and loop freshwater communities into the climate change conversation.

“It's about looking at water industries and looking at it in a circular economy and seeing what we have and what we can protect," he said, "and what we can advance in terms of green energy, jobs and the blue economy.”

The institute will help to foster the next generation of water conservationists and set a new standard for water management, conservation and restoration practices, Ronayne said.

Though it will be based in Cuyahoga County, Ronayne said the institute will welcome collaboration across all eight counties on the Lake Erie shoreline.

"We grapple with the same issues, the potential for water diversion as happened in Joliet, Illinois out of Cook County," he said. "We've seen, runoff be a real problem for our counties, whether that's out in Ashtabula County or Lucas County, and anywhere in between."

The Fresh Water Institute will first need to fill the role of director before work can begin, expected as early as this fall. Once up an running the institute will tackle issues such as phosphorus runoff from the agricultural industry and lead programming to get students involved in water conservation efforts.

The Climate Leadership Conference aims to foster conversations and connections on the transition to a green economy that involves using sustainable infrastructure to support clean energy jobs and climate-friendly businesses.

But it's important for stakeholders at all levels to ensure the transition is an equitable one, Ronayne said.

"A just transition is going to mean we're going to have to transition in an all-inclusive economic way where everybody has access to jobs and innovation in the new green economy," he said.

The Climate Leadership Conference continues through Thursday.

Updated: May 22, 2024 at 5:21 PM EDT
This story has been updated to add additional comments and details about the two initiatives.
Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.