Q&A: 'My worst disappointment? Realising I wasn't going to be an astronaut'

Lorry Wagner is president of the Lake Erie Economic Development Corporation (LEEDCo) in Cleveland, Ohio. The non-profit, public-private partnership is developing the 19MW Icebreaker, the US’s first freshwater offshore wind farm. A professional engineer with multiple degrees from Purdue University, Indiana (majoring in heat-transfer technologies for fusion reactors), Wagner has worked for 30 years in the power-generation, automotive, aerospace, chemical and manufacturing industries.

What defining event from your early years has shaped your views? The space programme. It made us all dreamers, and even to this day, I believe we can make our dreams come true.

When did you develop a passion for clean-energy issues?
I guess you could say that when I was at Purdue, I went into nuclear fusion because of a passion for clean energy. The promise and vision of a clean source of inexhaustible energy motivated me to become a change agent. Years later, when I entered the wind industry, I had the same feeling. There was so much promise, it was really exciting and interesting.

Who has had the greatest influence on you?
Oh, this is tough because Mom and Dad did more than I ever realised to make me who I am today. However, the one I think about most often is my professor, Paul Lykoudis. He coached me in every way so I could solve any problem. I had to become an experimentalist, a theoretician, a public speaker, a writer, a designer, punctual and relentless (I had to do three theses because I didn’t know how to claim the prize after the first one!) He taught me how to be the best in anything I did.

What was your first job?
Running a composite crew at the Perry nuclear plant for Philips Electric. It was made up of electrical, mechanical and nuclear engineers. We were like a trouble-shooting crew, a multi-disciplined project-management team.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?
The opportunity to do something important that will benefit Lake Erie and the Great Lakes region. A chance to bring entrepreneurism back to a region that has too many businesses living on their forefathers’ successes. My take is, in the Cleveland region we have a lot of businesses founded some time in the 1900s and they became very successful. The people who founded them helped make this region great: at one time, we were the third-largest industrial area in the world. Today, those same businesses are run by people primarily interested in their own wealth and making their company more profitable. They have little interest in taking risks and building up the region. My sense is everyone is playing it safe rather than trying to make a difference.

What is your greatest achievement?
Personally, it is being a dad and raising my twin boys, Tristan and Killian. Professionally, it would be the Purdue Distinguished Engineering Alumni award. It is a supreme honour to be mentioned on the same page as Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Stephen Bechtel, etc.

And your greatest disappointment?
Realising I would not be an astronaut. The reason I went to Purdue was that it was the “mother” of astronauts. I thought: “I’m going to go there and learn to be an astronaut and go into space.” It didn’t take long to realise that if you are going to be an astronaut, you have to be selected. There isn’t a process that you start at one end and come up on the other end an astronaut. In my era, about 90% of astronauts were pilots. Without being a pilot, it was a pretty slim chance. It was one of those things that you have a dream as a kid and hold on to. Then one day it’s: “Huh, that ain’t happening.”

What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into clean energy?
Probably stayed in the industrial computing world and developed secure systems.

How do you relax?
Swimming, boating, biking, listening to music.

What are your favourite song, book and film? Shine on You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd; Sources of Power by Gary Klein; and Prometheus.

What characteristics do you most admire in people?
I admire the ones who do what they believe in, aren’t afraid to tell the truth even when it offends and are willing to take risks.

What is the most important lesson you have learned?
Always listen to the little voice inside, your intuition. My understanding of intuition is that it tends to be your entire experience, your body and all your senses. Every single day when we are doing something — offshore wind or engineering or whatever — there is a process going on. There is a lot more to it than a+b = c. What happens is so many times you are like, “I think this is what we ought to do.” It’s almost always right.

What are your best and worst characteristics?
I am a great team builder. Very hard at first on personal failure. When I look at things that need to be done, let’s start building a process or a team to make it happen. Our process has not been so much to build LEEDCo as a powerhouse but to build the LEEDCo team into a powerhouse. If you look back on life, you know what? I probably failed ten times more than anyone else. Ultimately, it was good as it taught me how to be successful.

What ambitions do you still have? To build the next offshore wind project in the US, and the next, and the next.