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Wind farms stall, solar grows as energy debate continues in Ohio

Alternative energy advocates cheered a recent decision by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to veto a recent bill that would have weakened the state’s clean energy standards, arguing the move will lead to more investment and jobs in the industry statewide.

But opponents, including residents engaged in a long legal battle over a proposed Champaign County wind farm, said they have seen laws repeatedly shift on the issue and hope to continue the fight.

The debate centers on Ohio House Bill 554, which lawmakers passed late last year and would have made state alternative energy requirements optional for the next two years. But Kasich vetoed it, meaning the state’s older energy standards will now snap back into place.

RELATED: Everpower signs deal with Amazon for Ohio wind farm

A group of Champaign County residents have opposed the Buckeye Wind Farm, a project that calls for hundreds of turbines across several townships there. Terry Rittenhouse, whose home is located near the wind farm site, said he believes the debate over the mandates isn’t over, despite Kasich’s veto.

“I have learned the legislative process and that what goes on today is not what could be happening six months from now,” he said. “The winds change. New political parties come to power, so we’ll see. I’m not so worried. I don’t necessarily think the mandates are going to stay.”

Rittenhouse and other opponents have argued the wind farm is too close to homes within the project’s footprint. They have raised concerns about property rights, noise from the wind mills and the shadows cast as the turbine blades spin.

But the wind farm’s developers have argued they have worked with state officials to minimize any impact on residents and that the project will bring new revenue to Champaign County.

Even with the mandates back in place, both sides in the wind debate also said the real fight in that industry is over setbacks from homes and property lines.

Kasich’s decision will attract more investment to the state, said Mike Koralewski, senior vice president for global manufacturing at First Solar. The company’s Perrysburg, Ohio, plant is one of the largest solar panel manufacturing facilities in the U.S.

DETAILS: Supreme Court allows Champaign County wind farm to proceed

“Governor Kasich’s decision will help ensure that Ohio can leverage increasingly competitive, locally manufactured utility-scale solar projects that customers large and small demand in greater numbers every year,” Koralewski said.

Debate grows

The controversial mandates were approved by Ohio lawmakers in 2008. They call for a quarter of the state’s energy to come from alternative sources by 2025, with half of that coming from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

The law also required utilities to encourage energy efficiency, for example by offering customers rebates to purchase efficient appliances.

Advocates have said the mandates are important to make Ohio competitive, and attract new jobs and investment in the green energy industry. Opponents argued that they’re unnecessary and could lead to higher costs for consumers.

Lawmakers froze the law for two years while a panel studied its effectiveness. Late last year legislators voted to extend the freeze and make the standards optional as part of Ohio House Bill 554. But the requirements will go back into effect this year after Kasich’s veto.

The veto has angered some members of the Republican Party, including some local legislators.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, was a leading supporter of the bill to extend the freeze. He argued Kasich wanted to appease “coastal elites” in the renewable energy industry by allowing the mandates to resume.

The mandates drive up costs by forcing businesses to buy energy from renewable sources, Seitz said.

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

“When a capitalist makes a product that consumers won’t buy, he improves the price and/or quality of the product in order to get sales,” Seitz said in an email to the Springfield News-Sun. “When a socialist makes a product that consumers won’t buy, he gets the government to mandate that people must buy it. It’s that simple. Because I am a capitalist, I do not favor mandates.”

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, criticized the decision to allow the mandates to go back into effect and other members of the Ohio House and Senate who he said were unwilling to remain in Columbus at the end of the year to override Kasich’s veto.

“I would have been happy to come back to Columbus to vote yes to free markets and eliminate mandates … But that is not going to happen because of a ‘Republican’ governor and a ‘Republican super majority’ in the Ohio House that refuses to act and do what they told the voters of Ohio they would do,” Vitale said in a lengthy Facebook post.

But freezing the mandates over the past two years put Ohio at a disadvantage in attracting new, high-tech companies to the state, Kasich said, and extending it would unnecessarily blunt the state’s efforts to lure new businesses and jobs. He cited a study from the Midwest Energy Alliance that argued Ohio had saved more than $1 billion since 2009 due to investments in energy efficiency, thanks largely to the state’s energy efficiency standards.

Several environmental groups and businesses applauded Kasich’s veto, including Whirlpool, Nestle and the National Wildlife Federation.

In 2015, a report from Environment Ohio, an environmental advocacy group, argued the freeze cost Clark County about $3.6 million in energy savings since it was enacted, and could cost about $29 million by 2025 if made permanent. It argued if the freeze was extended, the Dayton metro area would have missed out on electricity savings worth $251 million by 2025, enough electricity to power about 175,000 homes for a year.

“Ohio workers cannot afford to take a step backward from the economic gains that we have made in recent years, however, and arbitrarily limiting Ohio’s energy generation options amounts to self-inflicted damage to both our state’s near-and long-term economic competitiveness,” Kasich said in a statement. “Therefore, this veto is in the public interest.”

Solar fares better than wind

The mandates were effective in attracting solar and wind companies to Ohio, said Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio.

But both industries have stalled since the freeze went into effect, he said. The organization promotes sustainable energy policies throughout the state.

But solar has fared better than the wind industry, which also faced stricter site regulations that advocates have said made it difficult to locate new winds farms in Ohio.

Ohio is expected to install about 482 megawatts of solar electric capacity in the next five years, about six times what was installed in the previous five years, according to the Solar Energies Industry Association.

“The solar side has been inhibited, but it hasn’t been shut down directly,” Spratley said. “We think there would be a lot more solar in Ohio had the (mandates) not been frozen or halted in effect. The reason we think that is at the national level Ohio got the reputation that it’s not friendly to renewable investment and that really was the biggest impact of the renewable portfolio freeze.”

Prices to install solar energy systems in the U.S. have dropped 66 percent compared to 2010, according to the industry association.

Although renewable advocates argued the costs for wind and solar has steadily fallen, the conservative Buckeye Institute said in a recent policy brief that the mandates could end up costing consumers more.

“Inevitably, mandating renewable sources means higher retail prices for consumers — who will ultimately foot the bill — because installing new renewable resources is more expensive than allowing existing conventional power plants to operate,” the report says.

James Groeber, owner of Ohio Solar Electric in Springfield, has installed solar panels at the Springfield-Clark Career Technical Center and at the Ohio Governor’s Mansion. Groeber doesn’t believe the mandates going back into effect will have a major impact on his business in the short term, but he said it’s better for Ohio in the long run.

“It will be a little bit of a benefit for the renewable energy community,” Groeber said. “The cost of installation is continually going down and we’re seeing more of it. It will probably encourage more businesses to come and operate out of Ohio.”

Spratley also cited several major business that have increased their commitment to solar energy, including Assurant in Springfield, which installed a $7 million solar installation at its campus on Leffel Lane to supply energy for the facility. National companies like Walmart have also made significant commitments to solar energy over the next several years.

“Solar and wind have become conventional energy in a sense,” Spratley said. “People still call them alternative energy but the reality is economics have shifted.”

Fight could continue

On the other hand, new wind projects in Ohio have stalled. Only two commercial wind farms operate in the state currently, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Kasich’s veto sends a message that Ohio is open to new investment, said Andrew Gonn, director of eastern state policy for wind association. But wind projects will continue to lag, he said, as long as recently approved tougher requirements for turbines to be placed further back from homes and other properties remain in place.

Ohio has already benefited from the wind industry, he said, and could do so more in the future. But he predicted a fight over the setback requirements.

“There are tremendous opportunities either way but to maximize the opportunity Ohio needs to address setback reform,” Gonn said.

Everpower, the developer of the proposed Champaign County wind farm, couldn’t be reached for comment.

In Champaign County though, Rittenhouse argued the tougher standards are necessary to protect residents who live near possible wind farms. He argued there has been enough local opposition that moving forward after a roughly decade-long fight would amount to a hostile takeover. Rittenhouse said he also feared further changes that could lighten setback requirements.

“Those changes in setback rules will put us back into a position where wind turbines are infringing on private property,” Rittenhouse said. “It’s my sincere hope our legislature falls on the side of the property rights of all homeowners.”

Some wind projects aren’t a good fit for communities, Spratley said, and those decisions should typically be made with input from community members at the local level.

“That is a very local decision and I think it ought to be made locally,” Spratley said.

He also predicted that the dispute over setbacks in Ohio isn’t over. But in general, he argued even if the state kept the renewable freeze in place projects would move forward in communities and businesses throughout Ohio.

“The technology cannot be stopped and I don’t think edicts from the legislature are going to stop it,” Spratley said.

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