Opponents of the planned Black Fork Wind Farm in northern Crawford and Richland counties can rest easy for the time being. For a variety of reasons, the project is on hold until further notice.
“Element Power continues to invest in the project and believe in the market. As far as moving forward this year or early next year, that’s not likely,” said Scott Zeimetz, a spokesperson for the Portland, Ore.-based renewable-energy company that would maintain the project’s wind turbines.
The Black Fork Wind Farm, approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board two years ago, is one of several wind farms in the early stages of development across north central and west central Ohio, and would be the largest of those projects.
The project was stuck in the state’s court system until December, when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that opponents’ due process was not violated during the siting board’s hearing on Element Power’s application to site the Black Fork project near the Crawford County village of Tiro.
But other hurdles stand in the way of the Black Fork Wind Farm becoming reality anytime soon.
Construction of new wind-energy projects has virtually ground to a halt nationwide in recent years as energy prices have been forced down by the abundance of cheap, domestic natural gas, not to mention federal tax subsidies designed to encourage renewable power sources like wind energy.
As a result, wind farms looking to sign power-purchase agreements with conventional utilities are now confronted with a challenging environment.
“There haven’t been very many PPAs signed for a while in Ohio, and there are different things at the state level dictating that,” Zeimetz said. “But we believe Ohio will be a good place for wind energy given the rules in place and its economic impact, particularly the amount of jobs it brings.”
However, various economic incentives created to aid renewable energy sources like wind are fighting for their lives, on both the state and federal levels.
Under Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard, 25 percent of electricity sold in the state must be generated from alternative energy sources by 2025. At least half of this energy must come from renewable sources such as wind, and half of the renewable facilities must be located in the state.
Legislation now under consideration in the Ohio Senate would freeze that mandate at the much lower 2014 level. Critics of the RPS claim that it subsidizes endeavors like wind power at the expense of fossil-fuel industries.
“I definitely don’t agree with that. The entire energy industry is subsidized. Fossil fuels are all subsidized,” said Emily Sautter, wind energy program manager for the advocacy group Green Energy Ohio.
“The state RPS is the primary driver for development. It’s what’s creating demand for renewable energy. With that gone, there will be no incentive to sign on to a purchase power agreement. A lot of wind farms are having trouble selling their power now.”
Blue Creek project
Blue Creek Wind Farm, the first and currently largest such facility in the state, in western Ohio’s Paulding and Van Wert counties, has gotten creative by going outside the usual utility channels to sign a 20-year power contract with The Ohio State University.
But much about Blue Creek is unconventional. Its operator, Iberdrola Renewables, also headquartered in Portland, Ore., was actually built without a power-purchase agreement in place.
“It was an enormous risk, but this company is financially strong so they decided to do it,” said Dan Litchfield, Iberdrola’s developer for Blue Creek.
“Certain companies will run projects without a PPA, but it’s not something we’d consider. It’s a different business model,” Element’s Zeimetz said.
Litchfield said Blue Creek was originally envisioned for Indiana, but Litchfield said he persuaded Iberdrola to move it across the state line to Ohio when this state’s renewable portfolio standard was passed.
“I’m aware of efforts like that in other states that haven’t succeeded,” he said of Ohio’s proposed RPS freeze, although one recently did succeed in Indiana. “This is the fourth time in three years the Ohio law has been challenged.”
“It’s a big concern,” Zeimetz said of the legislation. “But it’s politics. It’s a process, and we’re optimistic both sides will come to some sort of agreement.”
State Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, the lead sponsor of this latest effort to take on Ohio’s renewable mandate, was not available for comment, according to his staff, which also didn’t return a request for written comment.
FirstEnergy, an energy company based in Akron, recently distributed a letter to its customers opposing Ohio’s RPS.
“Tell our elected leaders in Columbus to protect businesses and homeowners from the rising costs of Ohio’s energy-efficiency mandates,” the letter reads.
However, other local energy providers have found a way to work with renewable power sources like wind.
“AEP has a program where people can elect to receive electricity from renewable sources. It comes from out of state, but it’s sometimes less than the regular AEP rate,” said Sautter of Green Energy Ohio.
AEP’s ECO-Advantage Electricity Plan offers customers options consisting of 100 percent wind energy at a fixed rate of 0.0719 cents per kilowatt hour, a savings of 0.003 cents per kilowatt hour each month.
“The potential for Ohio consumers to save money while supporting renewable energy is huge,” AEP says on its website.
Sautter also took issue with the common complaint that power generated from wind farms may not be in highest demand in the isolated, rural locations where the turbines are usually located.
“Energy grid operators have the tools to shuffle things around to meet demand. They do that now when a major plant shuts down,” she said.
In addition to Ohio’s RPS, wind farms here, as well as nationwide, have until recently been eligible for a federal production tax credit, which provides a rebate of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour over a wind farm’s first 10 years of operation. The rebate can knock up to 30 percent off the cost of such a project. However, the PTC wasn’t renewed by Congress at the end of 2013.
“You’re not going to qualify if you’re not already in the cycle. We’re hopeful it will be re-established, but as far as any information on its progress I’m not certain any is available,” Zeimetz said.
“If you find anyone with good information, I’d appreciate a call back.”
“In 10 or 15 years the economics are going to improve to the point where wind energy will be a no-brainer and we won’t need these policies. But for the near future we do. It’s only fair,” Sautter said.
Black Fork plan
The planned Black Fork Wind Farm would be west of Shelby, north of Crestline and nearly surround the village of Tiro. Ohio 598 would bisect the entire site from north to south. The vast majority of the 91 turbines would be 494 feet high. The project is expected to generate up to 200 megawatts of power and have a life span of 20 to 25 years.
In addition to the turbines, the project includes access roads, electrical collection lines, a construction-staging area, concrete-batch plant, substation, and an operation and maintenance facility, all located on 14,800 acres of private land leased from 150 landowners who have signed agreements with Element Power. The entire project area would cover 24,000 acres.
Element Power also has to sign agreements with Richland and Crawford counties that would determine how local roads, many with low load limits, would be repaired by heavy equipment during construction or maintenance of the wind farm.
“We’ll certainly need a road deal,” Zeimetz said. “We have a framework in place, but until we gain some traction with a utility and complete an actual agreement, we’ll be holding off.”
Other wind farms
The Black Fork, proposed for northern Crawford and Richland counties, is one of several wind farms in the early stages of development across north central Ohio. Others in the works:
• A subsidiary of Windlab Developments USA Ltd. wants to build a 25-turbine wind farm on 4,600 acres of leased land in Huron County’s Greenwich Township, bordering Richland County. The Greenwich Wind Park has a pre-application status with the Ohio Power Siting Board.
• The Republic Wind Farm, also in pre-application status at the siting board, would include 83 turbines on 15,000 acres near Republic in Seneca and Sandusky counties. It’s being proposed by Nordex USA Inc. of Chicago.
• NextEar Energy’s Honey Creek Wind Farm, in pre-application status, would consist of 115 turbines on 14,000 acres in Seneca County and Lyken and Chatfield townships in Crawford County.
• A fourth wind farm, proposed for northeastern Morrow County near Candlewood Lake, to be operated by Invenergy LLC, of Chicago, has yet to enter the siting board’s approval process.
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