American Electric Power is asking wind and solar developers for proposals for a massive expansion of renewable energy in Ohio.
The Columbus-based utility issued the request on Friday for projects that would generate 250 megawatts of wind energy and 100 megawatts of solar.
“This is a significant and timely step forward for AEP on what represents the single largest clean-energy commitment in Ohio history,” said Dan Sawmiller, an Ohio staff member for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, in a statement.
The new request is the first step in a long-term AEP plan to build 500 megawatts of wind energy and 400 megawatts of solar.
The framework of the plan was approved by state regulators this year. A key provision is that AEP can own up to 50 percent of each development, with AEP’s portion of the operational costs passed on to consumers.
This would be a dramatic increase in renewable energy in Ohio, which has 444 megawatts of wind farms and 119 megawatts of solar arrays, according to trade organizations for each power source.
A megawatt can provide for the electricity needs of about 1,000 houses. However, because wind and solar are intermittent resources, their actual output at a given moment is often much less than that.
Consumer advocates have raised concerns that some of the renewable-energy projects might not be justified by market demand and could lead to significant rate increases. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio acknowledged those concerns, but said the benefits outweigh potential problems.
Competing energy companies have argued that AEP’s plan is a troubling departure from a system in which power projects need to compete on an open market, rather than have a guarantee of payment from customers.
Todd Snitchler, a former PUCO chairman who now works on behalf of independent energy providers in Ohio, said that market forces should decide what gets built. Otherwise, there will be bad projects in which companies “build whatever they are allowed to, regardless of need or public policy,” he said.
But solar and wind advocates are applauding AEP’s move.
“The model that utilities have is evolving, and we have seen AEP as a very pro-solar company,” said Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio, an advocate for renewable power. “This helps the industry move forward.”
AEP is giving preference to solar proposals that would be located in Appalachian Ohio and says it will attempt to hire returning military personnel for the projects. There is no regional preference stated for wind, but most wind projects in the state tend to be in the northwestern counties, where the wind is strongest.
The wind and solar provisions were part of a settlement negotiated last year by the Sierra Club, AEP and others.
Developers can submit proposals to AEP through Feb. 16. Any wind farm or solar array would need to be reviewed by the PUCO, and some large projects also would need approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board.
AEP’s plan is moving forward at the same time that state officials are debating whether to change rules that require utilities to invest in renewable energy. The Ohio General Assembly passed a bill this month that would make some of the rules optional, as opposed to required, for the next two years.
Gov. John Kasich has not yet said whether he will sign or veto the bill.
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