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Businesses push solar, wind power growth

Top companies going to renewables for power.

Renewable energy use in Ohio is rising at a pace thought unlikely only a few years ago, with retailers, manufacturers and commercial businesses speeding up the transition.

Since the start of 2012, large projects have sprung up in Springfield, around Dayton, and Cincinnati. Today, western Ohio hosts a fifth of the state’s solar power generation. The momentum is helped by tax credits and a crash in prices for solar power hardware after companies in China dumped equipment here below actual cost.

While the dumping has seemingly ended with trade sanctions, tax credits will continue to encourage more renewable installations, experts say. In 2011, Ohio ranked 18th amongst states for the amount of installed solar power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. By 2012, Ohio moved up to the 14th spot.

The major new installations:

• Honda Transmission Mfg. of America, Inc. in Russells Point will by year’s end have two wind turbines feeding 10 percent of the plant’s electric demand. If that seems small, consider that the plant includes assembly lines using robots and a large electric forge. Juhl Wind Inc. of Pipestone, Minn., is building the turbines that will generate enough electricity to power 1,052 homes.

• IKEA’s West Chester furniture store on Interstate-75 installed a 128,000-square-foot solar array built with 4,186 panels. IKEA’S system could power 115 homes annually. The West Chester installation was the 14th completed solar project for IKEA in the U.S., with more locations underway, the company said.

• Earlier this month, Wal-Mart unveiled the installation of solar arrays atop a dozen Ohio stores, including nine in the Dayton-Cincinnati area. The arrays grew the state’s solar power generation by 10 percent and made Wal-Mart Ohio’s largest single solar power user.

• In Springfield, a 6,200 solar panel installation was installed on the roof of the Assurant Group, an insurance company, in Springfield. The $7 million project will produce more than 1.9 million kilowatt hours of solar power annually, about a third of Assurant’s energy use.

Even with the adoption of renewables by large industrial and commercial users, there are rumblings not all are on board. Julian Boggs of renewable energy advocacy group Environment Ohio fears the state legislature could roll back Ohio law that mandates the gradual adoption of wind, solar and advanced energy, as well as energy efficiency.

Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, chairman of the Senate Public Utilities Committee, has introduced Senate Bill 58 to review and possibly modify the energy efficiency and alternative energy requirements. The committee will be holding hearings until the end of April.

Seitz said the hearings are meant to provide a full and comprehensive survey of Ohio’s energy landscape and future needs. He said he’s invited testimony from all sides in the debate.

“After we have heard from all the warring factions, it’s my intention to come up with a bill that reflects the consensus of the testimony,” Seitz said. New factors that have arisen since the adoption of the law are the availability of natural gas and drops in energy demand.

But Boggs sees the bill as another effort to erode or kill state state energy mandates, which Seitz denies. Boggs is skeptical because Seitz co-sponsored a bill in 2012 to end the state mandate.

“We are concerned about where he wants to take the conversation,” said Boggs, who sees interests outside the state, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, behind the move.

The increasing corporate use of renewable energy is a national story, said the Solar Energy Industries Association. Its survey found the top 10 company’s using on-site solar are Wal-Mart, Costco, Kohl’s Department Stores, IKEA, Macy’s, McGraw-Hill, Johnson & Johnson, Staples, Inc., Campbell’s Soup, and Walgreens.

Altogether, the association said the top 20 corporate solar users generate an estimated $47.3 million worth of electricity each year. You could think of that output as about the capacity of a mid-sized natural gas power plant or enough to power almost 50,000 average homes, the association said.

Earlier this month, the association said solar is the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. It said the market size of the U.S. solar industry grew 34 percent from $8.6 billion in 2011 to $11.5 billion in 2012. As of the end of 2012, there were enough solar arrays to power 1.2 million homes.

Honda said the Russells Point plant, which is expanding production and adding jobs, will be the first major auto manufacturing facility in the United States to get a substantial amount of its electricity directly from on-site wind turbines. Construction will begin within months on the turbines that will reach 420 feet high, said Yusef Orest, project developer at Juhl Wind. The turbines will greet motorists traveling Ohio 235 on their way to and from Indian Lake State Park, a short distance away.

Under an agreement, Juhl Wind will build the project and own the two turbines. Juhl, a publicly-traded company listed on the over-the-counter market, will generate electricity for the plant and feed power to the grid under an interconnect agreement with the Logan County Electric Cooperative and a purchase agreement with Buckeye Power Inc.. Buckeye is generation and transmission cooperative owned by 25 electric distribution cooperatives in Ohio.

Orest said the turbines are a solid business deal. He put the estimated cost of the turbines at $8 million and expects them to pay off in full within 10 years. They should last 20 years, he added. Another major Juhl project in Ohio is in the works.

Orest said the Honda plant, which runs up to three shifts and employs 1,150, is being closely watched by other U.S. manufacturers. Turbines paired with industrial plants could become a more common sight. “We are talking to a large number of industrial plants around the nation who would like to do something like Honda,” Orest said.

On Wednesday, Environment Ohio released a report that said from January 2009 until December 2011, Ohio’s four largest utilities saved enough electricity to power 267,000 Ohio homes for a year because of mandated energy efficiency programs. It also said that enough new wind and solar photovoltaic capacity was added between 2009 and the end of 2012 to produce energy to power 95,000 Ohio homes.

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