By Holly Zachariah
The man in charge of the two largest wind-energy projects planned for Ohio says the latest message from the state is clear: Go away.
Michael Speerschneider of EverPower Wind Holdings said that after Gov. John Kasich signed legislation on Friday that stops increases in requirements for the use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, the prospect of any new large-scale wind development in the state probably is gone.
The legislation also repealed a rule that had required utilities to get half of their renewable energy from in-state sources. That component has been key to making Ohio-produced wind energy competitive with that in cheaper markets to the west.
Without that, it would be difficult for any of the 671 turbines that have received approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board to remain viable; 276 of them are in two EverPower projects spanning three western Ohio counties.
“It’s clear this development isn’t wanted here ... and it gives us less confidence in where Ohio is moving forward,” said Speerschneider, Ever-Power’s chief permitting and public-policy officer. “We’ll take that message to heart.”
Julie Johnson, whose rural Urbana property is in the footprint of an approved 110-turbine EverPower project in Champaign County, said she has heard that all before. The green-energy sky, she says, is not falling.
“It’s always something with those people,” she said of the wind-energy companies. “If they don’t get their way, they say they’re done. And then they don’t go away. That’s why we’ve been so dogged on this every step of the way.”
Johnson, a bank executive from Columbus who moved to her dream property in Champaign County to retire, was among the first Ohio residents to arm herself with information about the industry and to oppose it when serious whispers of large-scale wind farms surfaced in 2006.
Johnson’s Union Neighbors United has been a grass-roots power player at the Statehouse, arguing for safe siting of the wind turbines - which generally are about 550 feet tall - and that wind energy isn’t efficient or affordable in Ohio.
The Ohio Power Siting Board approved its first large-scale wind-turbine project in March 2010. Today, only the Blue Creek and Timber Road wind farms in Van Wert and Paulding counties are operating, with a total of 215 turbines.
Dayna Baird Payne, the Ohio lobbyist for the American Wind Energy Association, said the freeze on renewable-energy requirements is a “significant blow to the industry,” but the death knell really could come this week when Kasich is expected to sign part of the midyear budget-review bill.
A last-minute amendment fundamentally shifts where wind turbines can be built. State law specifies that turbines must be at least 1,250 feet from the nearest house. The new amendment measures that distance from the nearest property line rather than the building.
Payne said the more spread out the turbines must be, the less economically viable they are because too much land must be leased to put up enough turbines to make a difference, and it becomes too expensive to connect them all to the power grid.
If the Blue Creek project, which spans land in six townships in two counties, had been built under the new proposed setback rules, only 12 of its 152 turbines could have gone up, Payne said as an example.
Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, and Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, support the amendment and have said it is crucial to protecting private-property rights of people who do not want a turbine near their land.
“If Gov. Kasich is serious about this being a freeze and study, and not about defeating renewable energy, and if he wants us to believe what he says, then he simply must veto the setback,” Payne said. “It would really be the end of the line for the industry.”
Kasich’s office hasn’t said whether the governor will let the provision stand.
As written, the setback legislation appears to grandfather in approved projects such as EverPower’s Buckeye Wind project in Champaign County and its Scioto Ridge project of 176 turbines in Hardin and Logan counties. Both were designed with setbacks measured from neighboring structures.
But Speerschneider said it is unclear whether any of the approved projects can move forward after the freeze; any deadline extensions or changes in plans might require the company to adhere to the new setbacks.
He said it probably will take a legal challenge to sort the issues out and, after having spent an estimated $10 million to plan, design and engineer its projects, EverPower would have to decide whether the fight would be worth it.
The wind companies weren’t the only ones in the state’s business community to disagree with the energy-mandate freeze. Among those objecting were Honda, Whirlpool and the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association.
Kasich’s spokesman, Rob Nichols, bristles at the anti-business criticism surrounding the issue. “Since Gov. Kasich took office,” he said, “Ohio is up more than a quarter-million jobs, Ohio is the top job creator in the Midwest, and last year, more businesses were created in Ohio than in any year in state history. Anyone who would question our business-friendly commitment hasn’t read a newspaper in 31/2 years.”
As for wind energy, it isn’t just the landowners and the company executives who are interested in the outcome at the Statehouse. The wind projects have long been debated at the local level, too.
Hardin County, an economically depressed area with little remaining industry and few prospects for more, stands to gain more than $2 million a year in revenue from the wind companies for schools and local governments if Scioto Ridge develops as planned.
Such revenue could go a long way and is tough for elected officials to turn their backs on, said Hardin County Commissioner Brice Beaman.
But there’s no doubt that more is known about wind energy than when the projects all got off the ground years ago, he said. And it’s not all good.
He supports the new setback proposal, even if it means that Scioto Ridge will never happen.
“I will never sacrifice individual property rights for the almighty dollar,” Beaman said.