BELLE CENTER, Ohio – Six months ago, Michael Shepherd’s biggest worries involved running his gourmet-pizza shop and keeping up with his kids.
Then he saw a notice in his local newspaper about a company’s plan to run a power-transmission line across parts of rural northwestern Ohio. He looked closer.
The line was to be part of a wind-energy project and would include 176 towering turbines in Hardin and Logan counties.
The Scioto Ridge Wind Farm would encompass 17,000 acres in six townships. Hardin County’s Taylor Creek Township, where the Shepherd family’s five acres are a place where the dogs run free, the four-wheelers don’t bother neighbors and the pond offers relief on hot summer days, is sort of ground zero.
The Ohio Power Siting Board, which oversees wind-energy projects in Ohio, approved the plan last week. If the project is built, Shepherd will have six turbines surrounding his property, each one more than 500 feet tall. The closest will be about 1,500 feet from his house.
So rather than tossing dough these days, he’s much more likely to be testifying in front of the Ohio legislature about what he sees as failed energy policy or begging his county commissioners to repeal tax breaks that make the wind farm economically viable for EverPower Wind Holdings.
It’s exhausting and frustrating, Shepherd said. But worth it.
“If you’re not willing to stand up for your home, what good are you?” he said. “This is an outright, full-frontal assault on every individual that lives within that project zone.”
The campaign mounted by him and his neighbors is the latest in a line of grass-roots efforts to try to stop wind farms from changing the state’s rural landscape. But rather than fight it on a not-in-my-backyard level, they’re willing to go to Washington, D.C., if they have to, Shepherd said. “This isn’t just about protecting private property; it’s about whether or not wind energy in Ohio makes sense and who benefits from it.”
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Jason Dagger, development manager for EverPower, acknowledges that the political attitude over harnessing wind in Ohio keeps changing. Only a concrete energy policy at both the state and federal level will stabilize it, he said. Yet the debate rages on over renewable-energy mandates and tax credits.
“We’ve established that the wind in northwest Ohio is good enough, and we’re putting development and tax revenues into areas where there’s no other chance of large-scale energy development. Nobody’s going to build a coal plant in Hardin County,” he said. “There’s a huge advantage to using the resource that we know is already here.”
Developers started floating serious plans for large-scale wind projects in Ohio in 2006; the Ohio Power Siting Board approved its first one 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. Another 671 turbines have received state approval, and other projects accounting for 257 turbines are pending, according to the board.
Dayna Baird Payne, the lobbyist in Ohio for the American Wind Energy Association, said those first turbines were “not insignificant” and sent a national message that Ohio wind is viable. “That was a lot of wind to happen in a pretty short period of time,” she said.
On the other side of the issue, Tom Stacy, a Logan County landowner, was among the first in the state to help mount campaigns against wind farms. He said grass-roots groups have collectively tried to create legal questions about the state’s approval policy for such projects and to raise doubts about whether Ohio’s current laws and renewable-energy standards should or will continue.
“We’ve been able to put up a gantlet of little roadblocks,” Stacy said.
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Dagger’s company is not only developing Scioto Ridge but also has plans for 110 turbines in Champaign County. First approved in 2010, that project was challenged all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. Even now, not all the environmental and taxing hurdles have been cleared.
Still, Dagger hopes construction will begin on all the projects by 2015.
“You don’t build these overnight,” he said. “We haven’t been in any hurry. There’s a process, and we follow it and we’ll do this right.”
The larger unsettled questions are whether Ohio’s renewable-energy standards will remain in place and whether wind developers will be given local tax breaks.
State law says that utilities must get 25 percent of their electricity from renewable or advanced sources, such as certain types of nuclear power, by 2025 and that half of that must be produced in-state.
Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, has long tried to cut the in-state requirement. Ohio Sen. Kris Jordan, a Delaware County Republican, wants to repeal the renewables mandate altogether. Both senators’ proposals have been debated in committee.
Everyone seems to agree that, if the mandate is repealed or the standards are dramatically lowered, it will be difficult for Ohio’s wind-energy companies to compete with out-of-state sources.
Seitz said the country’s recession reduced the need for additional energy production and Ohio’s natural-gas boom has weakened the need for wind power.
“We should be able to buy power from wherever it is cheapest,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a protected bucket for Ohio wind developers.”
The Ohio Senate Republican leadership is expected to soon roll out a proposal – perhaps this week – that serves as some sort of compromise between the two senators’ proposals. It likely will include a moratorium on mandated increase while a panel studies the issue.
Dagger says the policy doesn’t need to change, that it’s about looking ahead: “You have to build based on what the energy market will likely do, not on current conditions. We have to be willing to look forward, and we know that wind is a necessary part of assisting the grid long-term.”
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The Statehouse isn’t the only battleground on the issue; so are the county courthouses.
County commissioners can create “alternative-energy zones,” a designation that significantly reduces the tax rate a company pays on each operating turbine. By establishing specific payments in lieu of taxes, the money is earmarked to directly benefit communities, especially school districts.
Hardin County, where Shepherd lives, has more companies that want to build wind farms in other areas, too. The county already has an alternative-energy zone. It was approved by a previous board of commissioners and spells out that any energy company building a wind farm will pay $9,000 for each megawatt of power produced.
Though that is a fraction of the taxes the company would otherwise be asked to pay, for economically depressed Hardin County, the Scioto Ridge project could mean more than $2 million a year for the schools and local governments.
That tax benefit cannot be overlooked, said Commissioner Brice Beaman. Two weeks ago, Shepherd and others in his group asked the current Hardin County commissioners to repeal the energy-zone status.
Citing environmental and health concerns about the turbines and the potential for dropping property values, Shepherd told the commissioners he understands that property owners who have leased their land to EverPower to host turbines have a right to do so. “But not at the expense of me and my family being able to enjoy my property and live on it without fear for our health or safety,” he said.
Commissioners Chairman Brice Beaman said they have listened to the group’s concerns and are researching their options.
“None of us in this room has the ability to stop windmills from coming,” he said. “But our concern is, if we do away with the alternative-energy zone, do we lose our whole position to negotiate with the companies? We have to look out for all of the residents of the county, not just some of them.”
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