VAN WERT – Within the past few days, the future for wind energy in Van Wert County has taken an almost 180-degree turn. Whereas land deals were signed and in force, plans and maps were drawn up and it appeared that Dog Creek Wind Farm in the eastern half of the county would soon join Blue Creek Wind Farm to the west, two recent changes from Columbus may have reversed the momentum locally.
Last Friday, Senate Bill 310 was signed into law by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, putting a two-year hiatus on renewable-energy standards in the state. Then Monday, Kasich put his signature on House Bill 483 without using a line item, which would have eliminated stiffer requirements for setbacks of wind turbines from property lines.
While no announcement has been made about the specific future of any further wind projects locally, Iberdrola Renewables Project Developer Dan Litchfield said on Tuesday, “We are disappointed with the two recent changes in Ohio’s energy policy, both their substance and the process by which the setback requirements were changed. The setback provision specifically had no opportunity for public comment or input.”
Concerning the immediate future of Dog Creek Wind Farm, Litchfield would only say, “We are currently assessing our options for future investment in Ohio but there’s no question that more investment in Ohio just became a much riskier proposition. It’s frustrating that we’re now less likely to work with our dozens of local landowner partners and Lincolnview Local Schools to add new revenue to the community.”
A statement directly from Iberdrola Renewables was harsher in tone, quoting American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan as saying that Kasich and the legislature “are creating an unfriendly business environment in Ohio.”
Kiernan went on to say, “Legislators rammed through restrictive rules without due process and millions of dollars already invested based on the previous set of rules may now be lost without any public debate. This will force clean-energy developers and manufacturers to move to neighboring states with similar resources and friendlier business climates.”
The new law changes requires wind turbines to be at least 1,300 feet from the nearest property line instead of the nearest house. Senate Bill 310 changes the renewable electricity standard for two years.
Ohio Sen. Cliff Hite, a wind energy-backer, explained that with changes in the marketplace, perhaps having 25 percent of the state’s energy coming from renewable energy by 2025 needed to be re-examined.
“It was time to have another look at exactly what we were doing with our in-state standards and making sure that the average Ohioan is getting the best bang for their buck,” Hite shared. “That was the purpose of this. Things have changed since we set up those standards. We didn’t know about natural gas and the supply that exists today. That has kind of changed the game a little bit as far as what does give the best bang for your buck. It’s a competitive game and it’s a market game and we have to look at it and try to find out what is the best we can do for Ohioans. So to have a pause for a couple of years is not a bad thing.”
Both pieces of legislation were recent considerations for lawmakers in Columbus. It is likely that protests by those opposed to new and current wind farms helped to inspire both the setback changes and the two-year halt on advancing renewable-energy standards. In April Iberdrola held a town hall meeting at Lincolnview High School in which some vocal demonstrators sparred with company representatives.
“There was a lot of talk in Van Wert County during the primary that was very anti-expansion of wind projects,” Hite noted. “That discussion became a part of our discussion as well. “
Sarah Smith, Van Wert County economic development director, who testified earlier against the changes and wrote Kasich to urge him to use the line item veto to omit the new setbacks, told the Times Bulletin she believed the anti-wind sentiment was too strong and cost Van Wert County a large investment.
Susan Munroe, CEO/president of the Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce, also testified in Columbus against the two changes.
“It’s my belief that Iberdrola could have dealt with (Senate Bill) 310, although that still provides legislative uncertainty which sends up red flags for companies like Iberdrola who are ready to drop $200 million in this community and understandably so,” she said. “But the setback provision was the real project killer, from my understanding. Maybe there is a way to get around that. I hope so because our community has way too much at stake when you look at Lincolnview Schools being able to reap another $600,000 for their school system each year. With the impact of decreased educational funding out of Columbus, this is even more important that we are allowed to pursue these private investment opportunities to develop our economy with no new taxes.”
The new setbacks will make any new wind farm difficult to design. Of the 150 turbines at Blue Creek Wind Farm, only 12 would adhere to the new law. But even with the new setback distances in force, Hite stated that property owners could still proceed if a waiver was signed.
“If somebody wants to waive that stipulation, they may. (You would only lose that many turbines) only if nobody waives their rights,” Hite pointed out.
“Every other entity that involves setbacks uses that to the property line except in Ohio when we did the setback rules for turbines. (Previously) I was the one who did the amendment that doubled the size of the setbacks but that still wasn’t acceptable for many, and definitely to those who sponsored the amendment that was put into (House Bill) 483. They felt we needed more setback to be consistent with other law. Their motives behind all that, you can discuss with them.”
Hite noted that Blue Creek will be grandfathered in to the new rules. Actually, any wind farm approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board currently qualifies to be built but any changes to the specifics of the development cannot be changed without being brought under the new measurements for setbacks.
Hite concluded simply, “I’m not as optimistic for new projects as I was a year or two ago.”
“This is an Ohio job killer, pure and simple,” wrote Mark Goodwin, president of Apex Clean Energy. With the setback requirement, he wrote, Apex “will have no choice but to take its investment and its business elsewhere. Given the need to find new carbon-free sources of electricity in Ohio, we cannot imagine a worse time to send wind energy companies packing.”
Whether Iberdrola comes to the same conclusion remains to be seen but its complaints about the process makes their position clear. In a company statement, Iberdrola states, “The American wind industry has generated major economic benefits for Ohio, which ranks first in the nation for the number of wind energy manufacturing facilities with more than 60 in the state. Yet there was no opportunity for the regulators at the Ohio Power Siting Board, nor a single wind company operating or developing in Ohio, to comment or provide testimony on this matter during its short one-week consideration in the General Assembly… Gov. John Kasich and the Legislature abandoned $2.5 billion in current wind energy projects, which now face cancellation along with jobs, leases, payments to local governments, and orders for factories, over a needlessly restrictive setback requirement that Kasich signed into law.”