A long-stalled, controversial wind farm in Champaign County recently took a big step toward construction but a debate over the future of Ohio’s renewable energy rules could continue to slow its development.
A committee of state lawmakers recommended last year that Ohio’s current freeze on mandates requiring a quarter of Ohio’s power to come from alternative and renewable sources should remain in place indefinitely. The incentives to use renewable energy could drive up costs and lead to job losses, the committee’s report argued.
Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati-area Republican, recently introduced a bill that includes several of the committee’s recommendations and would extend the freeze for at least three more years.
Continuing the freeze doesn’t mean projects like the Buckeye Wind farm in Champaign County can’t be built, said Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting for Everpower, the company in charge of the project.
But it makes renewable energy firms more wary of doing business in Ohio, he said, and likely makes it tougher to sell electricity generated by the wind farm.
“It certainly makes it harder if there’s a continuing freeze on the (Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard),” Speerschneider said. “But we think it’s a great project, it’s got a lot of benefits and we’re certainly pushing forward and trying to find the right commercial solution.”
The Buckeye Wind project has faced other battles and divided the community for years. If built, construction would include two phases and about 100 turbines spread across several townships in Champaign County.
Proponents have argued the Buckeye Wind farm in Champaign County will boost revenue for local governments and schools and provide renewable energy to more than 50,000 homes a year.
Both the proposed wind farm and the fight over whether to freeze the state’s renewable energy standards are part of a bigger statewide debate over how Ohio’s energy future should look, said Ted Ford, president of Ohio Advanced Energy Economy, a trade organization for clean energy businesses.
Clean energy policy has become a political fight and a debate has developed between those who have benefited from traditional forms of energy and from newer renewable sources.
“The issue in Ohio is we have not put forth a real effort to define the middle ground,” Ford said.
Buckeye Wind farm challenges
The Ohio Supreme Court voted 5-2 earlier this spring to allow the second phase to move forward after Champaign County prosecutors and a group of residents opposed to the project appealed a state board’s decision to grant a permit for the project.
Everpower doesn’t have a timeline for when construction could begin because it’s still waiting for legal challenges to be resolved, Speerschneider said.
The wind farm still faces three court cases:
• A pending appeal from Union Neighbors United, a group of residents opposed to the project, that argues the Ohio Power Siting Board and developers didn’t follow the proper procedures when extending the deadline to begin construction on the first phase of turbines.
• An appeal from Champaign County officials of the state’s decision to approve changes to the first phase of the project.
• A challenge from UNU to a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sets the operating conditions for the turbines to protect the endangered Indiana bat, which has been found in the wind farm’s footprint.
Opponents, like Rich Fosson, a member of UNU, said he’s considered selling his home if the project becomes a reality. Fosson argued the main concern of many opponents is they believe the turbines will be too close to homes.
State lawmakers have recently increased the setbacks from homes. But the Buckeye project falls under the earlier standards.
Fosson owns 52 acres south of Urbana and said one of his worries is it could prevent him from building new structures on his property once the turbines are built.
“I’m drained from this,” Fosson said. “I’ve contemplated selling my house four times and then I step back and think I don’t want to leave. This is a living hell.”
On the other side are proponents like Roderick Yocum, a farmer near Woodstock who said the turbines are set far enough from property lines that they won’t affect his neighbors.
But he said the Champaign County project will provide renewable energy and bring more revenue to local schools and governments.
The project has been estimated to provide a roughly $55 million boost to the local economy, although opponents have disputed that figure.
“We ought to take advantage of this wind power to help the whole community,” Yocum said.
Finding a middle ground
Slightly more than 100,000 workers are employed in alternative energy industries in the state, estimated Ford of the clean energy trade organization. About 75 percent of them work in the energy efficiency industry and the rest are in renewables like wind and solar, along with various additional advanced energy businesses.
The mandates, first enacted in 2008, called for a quarter of the state’s energy to come from alternative sources by 2025 — with half of that coming from renewable sources like wind and solar. If state legislators take no action, the mandates would go back into effect next year.
The Energy Mandates Study Committee’s recommendation last year drew backlash from environmental groups and from Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Joe Andrews, a spokesman for Kasich, said the governor looks forward to working with lawmakers over the next several months but he declined to comment on the pending legislation.
But Kasich said last year an indefinite freeze was unacceptable.
“We stand willing to work with the General Assembly to craft a bill that supports a diverse mix of reliable, low-cost energy sources while preserving the gains we have made in the state’s economy,” Andrews said last year.
Opponents of the mandates argued they could end up costing jobs in the long run because it could lead to higher energy costs for businesses and consumers.
While it may make sense to continue freezing the mandates for now, much will depend on Kasich’s input because he has the power to veto any legislation, said Greg Lawson, an analyst for the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank.
“I don’t think Gov. Kasich has done a great job of communicating to the General Assembly what he wants to see and what he can live with, and Gov. Kasich is absolutely right that he holds all the cards in this particular game,” Lawson said. “If the General Assembly gives him something he doesn’t like he can veto it and then we go back to the old standards that are going to be very costly.”
The renewable energy mandate freeze has already added uncertainty to businesses, Ford said, creating a drag on jobs that could otherwise be created. Extending the freeze could worsen that situation, he said.
“We have companies that are located in Ohio doing a lot of business outside the state where state policies are more encouraging toward advanced energy,” Ford said. “But in state, we’re just kind of holding the line so it’s a problem.”
The final report from the Energy Mandates Study committee drew a different conclusion. It cited a report from a professor at Utah State University that argued if left in place, the mandates would lead to an increase in unemployment in Ohio and cost residents about $258 million in personal income by 2026.
That’s mostly because the mandating standards could drive up the cost of energy, which would then impact affect, argued Lawson, of the Buckeye Institute.
“We have companies in Ohio that make parts for solar panels and make parts for wind turbines,” Lawson said. “What they’re trying to say is that all those jobs are going to disappear if Ohio doesn’t have a (renewable energy standard.) We hardly have any solar farms and wind farms in Ohio. A lot of that is in other states and companies are servicing out-of-state generation so that’s not going to go away based on what Ohio does.”
Despite Kasich’s reluctance to discuss the most recent legislation while it’s pending, Samantha Williams, a policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued he made it clear while on the presidential campaign trail that he wants to see some balance between an extended freeze and the previous mandates.
“Gov. Kasich has been very consistent on this,” Williams said. “He sent a pretty unequivocal signal to lawmakers that they have to strike a middle ground and do something constructive on energy policy in Ohio.
Clean Power Plan
The Energy Mandate Study Committee’s report also cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan as one of the reasons to extend the freeze. That plan would require Ohio and other states to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power plants by roughly 30 percent by 2030 but it faces legal challenges.
The state study committee cited the Clean Power Plan when it recommended an indefinite freeze on mandates and lawmakers had it in mind when developing the most recent legislation, Lawson said.
Most lawmakers expect the court dispute over the federal rules to be resolved around 2018, he said, so extending the freeze would give the state time to determine how Ohio could best ensure its energy policies comply.
“If Ohio and the federal EPA aren’t on the same page, then we have businesses and local governments and power companies trying to do two different things at the same time and that could get very confusing and very costly in unexpected ways,” Lawson said.
But freezing the mandates because of the Clean Power Plan makes little sense, Williams said.
The longer the standards are frozen, the tougher she said it will be for Ohio to meet federal emissions requirements once the legal battles are resolved. She also argued sections of the new legislation would also erode the Ohio EPA’s authority.
“These are obstructionist attempts to upend the Clean Power Plan so that states can’t comply,” Williams said. “Ultimately that is only good for polluters and those who support the fossil fuel industry.”
Lawson argued it makes little sense to allow the standards to take effect until lawmakers know what the final federal requirements will look like.
“If you’re going to do it it makes sense to wait a little while, ” Lawson said. “They can say it’s bad for the environment but it’s not really going to hurt to wait three years.”