CLEVELAND, Ohio – Advocates believe renewable energy in Ohio and across the United States should get a boost when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January given his expressed desire to make America’s energy sector carbon-free by 2035.
Yet most of the development of wind and solar farms is driven by what’s going on at the state level, and in Ohio the political climate for renewable energy has not been welcoming.
The controversial House Bill 6 reduces and eventually eliminates so-called renewable portfolio standards. And the prospects for windfarms have been additionally hampered by strict setback standards imposed in 2014.
So, what are the prospects for 2021 and beyond? To get a better understanding of the state of wind and solar in Ohio, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer spoke with several developers of utility-scale wind and solar projects, defined as producing 50 megawatts or more of electricity.
Does wind and solar make sense in Ohio?
From a resource standpoint, yes, according to developers. Ohio may not offer the potential of an Arizona when it comes to sun power, but it gets enough rays to create affordable electricity under the right circumstances. And the northwest quadrant of the state has ample wind resources.
The state also has millions of acres of flat farmland that are ideal for solar farms that can be shrouded in trees and other greenery to hide them from view.
Also, the grid infrastructure is already in place. Ohio has plenty of transmission lines, many originally built to connect rural coal plants with city centers, that make for convenient interconnection to the grid. Ohio also belongs to the robust and reliable PJM Interconnection, which controls the wholesale distribution of electricity across 13 states and Washington, D.C.
There’s also growing corporate demand for green energy and the willingness to pay for it, evidenced in Ohio by Amazon’s arrangement to buy electricity from both wind and solar projects.
What’s the status of new wind projects in Ohio?
Only a few new wind projects are in the works and that’s largely because of regulatory obstacles and lack of political support to remove them, said Andrew Gohn, director of eastern state affairs at the American Wind Energy Association.
Perhaps the biggest deterrent is the change in setback requirements. Projects considered economical suddenly became less so. That said, the industry in Ohio has not completely ground to a halt.
Last year, EDP Renewables North America completed a small wind farm in Paulding County, which borders on Indiana. The farm was built under the new, restrictive setbacks – the space the government requires that wind farms maintain between the wind turbines and buildings.
But the Pauling County project is the last one the company intends to build in Ohio under the current regulatory and political environment, said Amy Kurt, the developer’s senior manager of regional government affairs.
“We were able to squeak that project out,” Kurt said, because it was in a favorable area where EDP already had operating wind farms and the company was able to get the necessary waivers from landowners to overcome the setback restrictions.
Also, RWE Renewables Americas, the U.S. subsidiary of a German energy company, just erected the last of 75 turbines on a 250-megawatt project in Hardin and Logan counties, northwest of Columbus. The so- called Scioto Ridge project was permitted in 2014 and built under the old setbacks.
The only wind developer with new projects before the Ohio Power Siting Board that must adhere to the current setback requirements is Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia-based firm that has been trying to produce wind energy in Ohio for the past 10 years.
Apex did not give up as others did when the setbacks changed, however it was forced to accommodate the new restrictions and to incorporate new technology that allows for taller turbines that create more megawatts of electricity.
One of the projects, Emerson Creek in the northwest counties of Erie and Huron, would have 52 to 71 turbines depending on the size of the turbines and generate 300 megawatts of power, said Nate Pedder, development manager for Apex Clean Energy.
Before the setback change, Emerson Creek was to have been built in two phases with more than 100 turbines generating 500 megawatts, Pedder said. New plans before the Ohio Power Siting Board include options for turbines that can generate significantly more electricity.
Also moving ahead is a reimagined project in the northwest counties of Seneca and Sandusky. The proposed Republic Wind farm is expected to have about 50 turbines and generate 200 megawatts.
Pedder said Apex has a third project on the drawing board. The Honey Creek project would be primarily in Crawford County, west of Mansfield.
“There could be more,” he said.
What’s the status of new solar projects in Ohio?
Seven solar projects in Ohio have been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, three of which are currently under construction, according to board spokesman Matt Butler.
Two of the projects are in Hardin County. The third, called Hillcrest, is in Brown County, east of Cincinnati.
Hillcrest is a good example of the benefits, beyond cleaner air, that wind and solar projects can provide, according to developers.
Construction on the 200-megawatt Hillcrest project began in January and has employed several hundred workers throughout a year when many people were out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Stephanie Williams, director of government relations for project developer Innergex Renewable Energy.
The project will have pumped at least $69 million into the economy once it is up and running by March of 2021 and promises to distribute $60 million in “payments in lieu of taxes” to the Western Brown School District and Green Township over the next 35 years, Williams said.
The projects 600,000 solar panels were made by FirstSolar in Perrysburg.
Similar scenarios could play out across the state.
“It’s really a fantastic way to support these local communities,” said Jason Rafeld, executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Association of Ohio, an advocacy group.
In addition to those projects cleared to begin construction, 23 more projects scattered around the state have applications pending before the Ohio Power Siting Board or have indicated their intent to file.
The politics of wind and solar
Generally speaking, the wind and solar industries are hoping for a repeal of House Bill 6, but that does not seem as likely as it did earlier in 2020 when legislators on both sides of the aisle were aghast at the accusations of dark money and criminal activity behind the bill’s passage.
The bill bails out two nuclear plants, among other things. But wind and solar developers are more concerned about the bill reducing the amount of energy that the state says must come from renewable energy sources. HB 6 reduces the so-called renewable portfolio standards from 12.5% to 8.5% and phases out the requirement altogether by 2026.
Gohn said his organization doesn’t think the legislature will retract the portfolio standards but he is hoping they will remove two dubious “technologies” from the list of those that count toward the standards.
They include the burning of a waste products called “black liquor” by the paper industry and some “industrial waste heat” provisions.
While House Bill 6 guts the renewable energy standards, it provided subsidies to six solar projects in the state that had been permitted when the law was enacted.
Rafeld said he believes the solar subsidies were added to the bill to build a coalition of bipartisan support for a bill that was primarily intended to bail out the nuclear plants.
What federal changes are afoot?
The renewable industry would love to see a federal renewable portfolio standard but sees no political appetite for that, said Gohn, whose wind association is transitioning into the American Clean Power Association that includes solar and other renewable forms of energy,
The industry is also hopeful that tax credits for wind and solar are extended under a Biden administration, although such tax policies would need the approval of Congress.
What about Lake Erie wind?
Plans to put a 6-turbine wind farm called Icebreaker off the coast of Cleveland in Lake Erie are still in place after developer Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. won a hard-fought battle with opponents before the Ohio Power Siting Board.
In September, the board reversed a prior decision to limit nighttime operation, a requirement that would have quashed the project.
But before the 20-megawatt pilot project can move ahead, the board must decide on an appeal from opponents, who contend that the turbines would, among other things, harm migratory birds.
That appeal could ultimately go to the Ohio Supreme Court, possibly delaying the project another 12 to 18 months, said Dave Karpinski, president of Lake Erie Energy Development.
Karpinski said his group expects to win that appeal, but the additional delay has further stalled the project’s momentum.
“We suffered quite a setback,” Karpinski said, and the project’s Scandinavian investor needs to have its confidence in Icebreaker restored.
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