Wind power backers, opponents gear up for long fight over energy laws

July 13, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Everpower Renewables has spent as much as $10 million in Ohio to get a trio of wind projects ready for construction, including in Champaign County, but two recently signed laws are making the firm reconsider if their investment is still worth the effort.

Wind energy advocates said the laws put the future of wind energy in Ohio in jeopardy, potentially stalling or killing as many as 10 shovel-ready projects that could mean $2.5 billion in investment in the state, along with as much as $20 million in combined tax payments to local governments and lease payments to property owners.

But opponents to the wind farms argue the current law is unsafe because it allows the turbines to be too close to homes and could lead to skyrocketing utility bills for consumers.

Statewide, both sides said they are gearing up for a protracted fight over how electricity will be developed and delivered in the state in the years ahead.

“It’s divided the community, no doubt,” said Paul Black, of Mechanicsburg, who wants to lease farmland he owns for turbines.

In jeopardy?

In Champaign County, Everpower has been working since at least 2008 to develop two phases of the Buckeye Wind Project.

Combined, the two phases include 100 turbines that would produce enough energy to power about 50,000 homes a year. Both phases have been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, but opponents want the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider that decision for the second phase.

Everpower has said the Buckeye project could pump $55 million into the local economy although opponents dispute that number.

The company is also developing the Scioto Ridge Wind Farm, a 176-turbine project in Logan and Hardin counties.

It’s still too early to say whether the legislation will mean the end of the Buckeye wind farm, said Michael Speerschneider, a spokesman for Everpower.

The project is in jeopardy because the state legislation will freeze current mandates for renewable energy, he said, making it harder to find a buyer for the electricity produced by the turbines. Everpower doesn’t have a timeline for when it will decide whether to move ahead or kill the projects.

“It’s very early,” Speerschneider said. “We’re still trying to figure out what it all means and if we can work through it. It could very well be something that leads to having a lot more difficulty in completing the projects.”

Opponents like Irene Peace of Cable said she hopes the state laws are a sign to the wind companies that the projects aren’t welcome in areas like Champaign County.

“They’ve stayed and we’re hoping what’s going on now is the push they need to just pack up and leave,” Peace said.

Long fight ahead

At the heart of the debate are two recently signed laws that will take effect later this year.

Senate Bill 310 will freeze Ohio’s renewable energy mandates for two years and create a panel to study whether to change the state’s energy laws. House Bill 483, which could have a bigger effect on wind developers, would significantly increase how far a wind turbine must be from a neighboring property.

Ohio’s current renewable energy law called for a quarter of the state’s energy to come from alternative sources by 2025, with half of that coming from renewables such as wind and solar. The law also required utilities to encourage energy efficiency, for example by offering customers rebates to purchase efficient appliances.

Wind industry officials say the law was working as intended, increasing investment in renewable energy and creating jobs in manufacturing and construction to build parts and construct the wind farms.

Wind energy has become much more efficient in recent years, industry leaders say, providing more stability and reducing costs for residents.

The new laws will create long-term uncertainty among investors, likely driving projects to other states for at least the next two years, said Peter Kelley, vice president of public affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. It also sets up a long fight about the issue in Columbus.

“We’d say it starts a two-year debate and we plan to win the debate,” Kelley said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait two years.”

Ohio SB 310 allows lawmakers to take an extended look at the state’s renewable energy requirement to see if the laws make sense for consumers, said Ohio Sen. president Keith Faber, R-Celina, whose district includes Champaign County. The renewable mandates might make sense, he said, but the state needs to determine whether the wind farms are a good investment for consumers.

“They’re getting multiple subsidies,” Faber said of the wind farms. “The question is when is enough enough and when should they be viable.”

Setbacks

Twelve wind farms have been approved statewide, but only two in northwest Ohio are operational. The two-year freeze likely won’t affect those projects, including the 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties, said Dan Litchfield, project developer with Iberdrola Renewables.

But it will deter future investment, he said.

“We’re not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing because it may mean that our project is the last one built for some time,” he said. “If someone wants to buy wind power generated within Ohio, we’re the only game in town.”

More concerning, he said, is HB 483, which increases the distance turbines must be set back from homes. If that law had been in place, only 12 of the 152 turbines at Blue Creek could have been built. Iberdrola planned to develop the nearby Dog Creek Wind Farm with 50 turbines, but with the new setbacks only seven can be built.

“With the two actions of the legislature, it’s almost like that option has been taken off the table,” Litchfield said.

The Buckeye farm was approved before the new laws took effect, meaning the setback laws do not apply.

But the new laws also include a provision in which the tougher setbacks take effect if changes are made to the wind farm proposal. The law isn’t clear on whether changes like a new model of turbine, for example, could trigger the setbacks to take effect.

The cost of leasing the land, combined with far fewer turbines, would mean the project would no longer be economically viable, Speerschneider said.

“If those setbacks did apply, then I think that would go a long way to killing the project, and we probably never would have started the project if that’s what the setbacks were to begin with,” he said.

Unsafe in residential areas

Wind advocates like AWEA argue Ohio’s setbacks already compare favorably with other states.

But the distance from homes has long been a point of contention for opponents, who argue the wind farms are unsafe in relatively residential areas.

“House Bill 483 comes about from the grass roots community who have relentlessly educated and pressured lawmakers over the past six years since the state pre-empted wind turbine zoning authority from townships,” said Tom Stacy, an opponent who tracks wind farms throughout the state. “The Ohio Power Siting Board did a horrible job from day one by ignoring health and safety literature, as well as wind industry recommendations.”

Residents on both sides of the debate see the setbacks as a property rights issue. Black, of Mechanicsburg, would have two turbines on about 200 acres of farmland he owns.

The turbine leases will provide an additional source of income for his farm, and he said the new law will prevent him from deciding whether to allow turbines on his own property. The new laws are a legislative effort to prevent new wind development in the state, he said, and it’s still unclear to him whether the Buckeye project will move forward.

“I don’t believe it’s dead yet,” Black said. “It might be on life support but its not dead.”

But Peace, of Cable, also sees property rights as key to the debate. She raised concerns that the turbines near her home could harm her property values and be an eyesore in the community. She also is concerned about safety, worried that a blade or a turbine could fall.

Residents on both sides of the debate said the issue has caused irreparable harm to several friendships since the project was introduced.

Both sides said the fight will likely continue while the two-year freeze is in place.

“We’re not going to give up,” Peace said. “It’s just a fight that needs to go on until it can’t.”

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©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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