Solar-power developers putting together Plan B

February 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

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ERIC ALBRECHT | DISPATCH

David Wilhelm, left, and Evan Blumer say their project, Turning Point Solar near Zanesville, is still coming together.

By 

Dan Gearino

The Columbus Dispatch

Friday February 8, 2013 6:25 AM

Developers of what has been called the largest solar-power project in the Midwest say it will
get built, despite a setback dealt them last month by utility regulators.

Turning Point Solar partner David Wilhelm said, “Reports of our demise are exaggerated. Plan B
is coming together.”

The project calls for construction of a 49.9-megawatt plant on a site near Zanesville.

The plan to save it likely will involve commitments from utilities, universities and hospitals,
in Ohio and elsewhere, to buy electricity from Turning Point.

Wilhelm, of Bexley, and his partner, Evan Blumer, of Pataskala, discussed the project with
The
Dispatch.

The backup plan is more complicated than the initial one, which involved American Electric Power
buying all the electricity and paying for it with a mandatory charge on customers’ bills. The
Public Utilities Commission of Ohio nixed that idea with a 3-1 vote on Jan. 9, ruling that AEP had
not proved that the project is needed.

Ohio law allows such mandatory funding only when there is evidence that the project is needed
and could not be built on the open market.

Following the decision, Democrats and environmental groups called the PUCO’s action a job-killer
and a political favor to FirstEnergy, a rival Ohio utility that opposed the project. That led to
pushback from others who said Turning Point was a thinly veiled promotional vehicle for former Gov.
Ted Strickland, a Democrat.

Wilhelm and Blumer say Turning Point has the support of Republicans and Democrats, and any
attempts to politicize it are counterproductive.

That said, Wilhelm is a former Democratic National Committee chairman and was a top campaign
official for the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign. He has started several venture-capital
funds that help finance businesses in the Midwest, with much of his work taking place in
economically challenged parts of Ohio.

“My last political campaign was 20 years ago,” he said. “I don’t want this project to be a
political football. I want it to be considered on its merits.”

Blumer is the former executive director of the Wilds, a nonprofit wildlife center in Muskingum
County that is near the Turning Point site. He now splits time between consulting on conservation
initiatives and working to develop renewable-energy projects.

In the PUCO case, the opponents also included the Retail Energy Supply Association, a national
trade group for unregulated energy companies. The group argued that Turning Point’s proposed
payment method was an unfair subsidy.

“By allowing (a utility) to recover such costs on the backs of all customers, it creates a
disincentive for competitive (electricity providers) to make their own generation investments in
Ohio,” the group said.

Meanwhile, the project has the support of the Ohio AFL-CIO, renewable-energy advocates and a
variety of economic-development leaders. The plan, which would be the largest photovoltaic array
east of the Rockies, would lead to an estimated 300 manufacturing jobs and 300 construction
jobs.

While opposing Turning Point’s funding, the PUCO said the plan has merit and should be able to
obtain funding in the market. The PUCO staff has continued to meet with the project’s supporters to
help put together a group of electricity buyers that will allow the plan to move forward, the
developers said and the PUCO confirmed.

An AEP spokeswoman said the utility is still deciding how to respond to the PUCO’s ruling,
including whether to appeal the decision.

Turning Point has obtained state and federal environmental permits and permission to hook into
the interstate electricity grid. Each of those approvals took time and money.

The developers have spent about $2 million so far for a project that will cost about $180
million to build. To underscore his commitment, Wilhelm noted that he is using his Bexley house as
collateral to pay for some of the work that has been done already.

He hopes to have an update on the project within the next new months, and he is “determined and
confident” that it will come together, he said.

dgearino@dispatch.com

@dispatchenergy

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