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Developers: Long-delayed Champaign County wind farm still in the works

Developers have spent as much as $10 million to push three wind farms forward in Champaign, Logan and Hardin counties — all without putting a shovel in the ground.

The controversial Champaign County wind project has been tied up in a legal dispute for more than a year, while a pair of new laws passed last summer has put additional hurdles in its path.

Of 17 total projects in the state, only two are operational while 11 have been approved and four have been proposed. Both phases of the Buckeye Wind farm in Champaign County and the Scioto Ridge Wind farm in Logan and Hardin counties have been approved by the state but stalled before construction.

Everpower Renewables, the company in charge of those projects, still plans to move forward despite numerous challenges and delays, said Jason Dagger, a spokesman for Buckeye project.

Everpower introduced the Champaign County project as far back as 2008, arguing it could pour as much as $55 million into the local economy, although opponents have disputed that figure. If approved, the two Champaign County projects combined would include 100 turbines across several townships, producing enough energy to power as many as 50,000 homes annually.

“At the end of the day, we’re getting closer and closer to moving forward,” Dagger said.

But for some Champaign County residents, they hope the delays mean the projects don’t get built. Several residents have opposed the project in public comments to the siting board during the second phase of the project.

“I urge you to deny this project,” said Erin Hennigan, of Cable, in a letter to the board. “It has torn our county apart … What money that will be brought into the county will be offset by the number of people that will leave.”

Slow progress

The Buckeye Wind farm in Champaign County is split into two separate projects. The Ohio Power Siting Board approved the first phase with 54 turbines in March 2010. The Ohio Supreme Court later upheld that ruling, despite an appeal by opponents who raised concerns about the safety of the project and its proximity to area homes, among other issues.

The siting board approved the second phase with 56 turbines in May 2013. Champaign County officials and Union Neighbors United, a group of residents opposed to the project, appealed that decision as well in November 2013. The case is still pending with the Ohio Supreme Court, with no date set for oral arguments.

County officials have also been waiting for the Ohio Supreme Court case to move forward before entering further discussions about the project, Assistant Champaign County Prosecutor Jane Napier said.

In addition, Everpower sought an extension for construction of the first phase of the project because its certificate was scheduled to expire this year without construction starting. The siting board granted the extension last year, but UNU also appealed that decision, arguing the state didn’t properly follow its own procedures necessary to grant the extension. That case is still pending before the siting board.

Many residents in Champaign County are opposed to the wind farm because they believe the turbines would be placed too close to homes, said Chris Walker, an attorney for UNU. Proponents of the project have argued the initial setbacks were adequate to protect property owners.

“I am strongly opposed to the wind project in Champaign County, said Eden Hairston, of Urbana, in a public letter to the siting board. “It will do nothing to directly benefit our county financially, and I believe it will ultimately have an adverse effect.”

Under new state regulations passed last year, the wind mills are now required to be at least 1,125 feet from the tip of the turbine blade to the nearest property line.

If UNU wins its siting board appeal, Everpower may have to seek a new certificate for the first phase of the project, Walker said.

“We would take the position that the new setback law applies and it would require reconsideration of the location of turbines in the Buckeye Wind Project,” Walker said.

Everpower believes the original, shorter setbacks should apply because the project was already approved, but it’s not yet clear how the rule would be enforced, Speerschneider said.

Projects stalled statewide

The Ohio Power Siting Board hasn’t approved a project since last August when it signed off on a 25-turbine project in Huron County.

The drawn-out dispute in Champaign County has frustrated some residents, including Ross Yocum, a farmer from Cable who would receive payments from Everpower for leasing space for four turbines on his property. The project’s potential tax benefits to the county and area schools have been delayed as opponents have dragged out the legal dispute for years, Yocum said.

“We don’t have very much industry here in the county and we need the revenue,” Yocum said. “We’ve got to get our electricity from somewhere.”

Another state law passed last year also froze Ohio’s mandates for power companies to use renewable energy for two years while state lawmakers studied the energy laws to review their effectiveness. The mandates aren’t the only factor that determines whether a wind company is able to find a buyer for the energy it produces, but it’s an important factor, said Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting for Everpower.

“Ultimately we need to find a buyer for the electricity,” Speerschneider said. “The demand created under the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard is a big part of that. It’s not the only option, but it is a big part of it.”

The new state laws are affecting wind projects statewide, said Andrew Gohn, eastern region director for the American Wind Energy Association. More than 60 manufacturing facilities in Ohio produce parts for the wind industry, he said, and the industry supports more than 1,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

“There continues to be strong developer interest in Ohio, but the passage of (the new regulations) last year significantly increased the challenges associated with developing projects in the state,” Gohn said.

State lawmakers, including state Sen. Keith Faber, whose district includes Champaign County, and Sen. Bill Seitz, a proponent of SB310, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

So far, the changes to the state renewable energy mandates have had little effect on the operating projects like the 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties, said Dan Litchfield, project developer with Iberdrola Renewables. More concerning are the tougher setbacks, which makes it more expensive and cumbersome to develop new projects, he said.

“That has really chilled our development efforts for future projects in Ohio because we cannot comply with the new setbacks,” Litchfield said.

Iberdrola is considering additional projects in Van Wert and Putnam counties, and both projects would be subject to the new setbacks. Initial plans for both projects combined called for about 125 turbines, but under the new setbacks he said there is room for only about 12 wind mills.

“The biggest conclusion is that it’s been another year and there’s been no new wind farms in Ohio,” Litchfield said.

Moving forward

One of the problems with the Champaign County project in particular is how it’s divided residents, said Cindy Landolfo, a local resident whose mother lives near one of the proposed turbines. One of the problems aside from the setbacks, she said, is some residents will benefit financially while neighbors who might oppose the project have little say.

“They are very intrusive and I think they’ve really divided people who have known one another for a long time,” Landolfo said. “They’ve divided a lot of people on this issue because some people are going to make some money on it and some people are just going to be stuck with it.”

The controversy over the project was one reason Josh Beery conducted research on how wind projects are funded. Now an adjunct professor in statistics at Urbana University, Beery recently published an academic study reviewing different models for wind farms, using the Everpower project as a case study. The research was completed while Beery was studying at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

His research showed most financial incentives are geared toward funding for corporate projects, Beery said, but many disputes could be resolved by providing more incentives to local communities and encouraging more financing from local entities. He said the study could act as an incentive for policymakers to reform energy policies overall.

“The wind industry, government and communities can all work together in order to achieve these higher socioeconomic benefits,” Beery said. “That way we get more out of it.”

While the Buckeye projects are still pending in the courts, Dagger said he is confident the company and local elected officials can iron out most of the lingering issues to ensure the projects move forward.

“We believe we have a strong case but we can also work out any of those differences we’ve had in the past,” Dagger said.

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