At the Madison County Fairgrounds over cups of ice cream from Miller’s Olde Fashioned Ice Cream and packets of sunflower seeds, solar energy developers pitched residents on harvesting more than soybeans and corn on their fields.
The central Ohio county west of Columbus has been fertile ground for solar farms, including the possible development of 6,300 acres owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Local leaders largely back the projects, which could raise as much as $3.9 million annually for a rural school district over the next 20 or even 40 years.
The story is different in northwest Ohio’s Seneca County, where yellow yard signs declare: “No Wind Turbines in Seneca County.” Residents there worried about the potential damage, property value hit and overall nuisance of wind turbines the size of Cincinnati’s Carew Tower or Columbus’ LeVeque Tower.
Local officials want a say in whether and where these massive projects are built. Under current law, the five-member Ohio Power Siting Board in Columbus oversees which solar farms and wind turbines are approved.
This renewable energy fight came to a head in Senate Bill 52, which would allow local elected officials to reject specific solar or wind projects in their communities, ban all such projects or restrict them from certain areas.
“We in rural America should have a say in what happens in our state as well,” said Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, who sponsored the bill. The proposed legislation passed the Ohio House 52-43 early Tuesday and a 20-12 concurrence vote sent the bill to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk.
Proponents of wind and solar energy say the changes are unnecessary roadblocks that single out renewable energy for burdensome regulations.
The Power Siting Board recently rejected that controversial Seneca County wind project, which some are viewing as an endorsement of the current process. But those who want changes say it took too much time and money to stop a project that could have been handled better at the local level.
What would the bill do?
Under the proposed changes, wind and solar businesses would need to hold a public meeting at least 90 days before applying to the Ohio Power Siting Board for permission to build. Company officials would need to detail the size of the project and a map of how far it would extend.
County commissioners could reject a specific project or ban all wind and solar projects in the county.
Alternatively, county commissioners could set aside specific areas where wind and solar businesses could not build their turbines, solar panels and other facilities. If residents disagree with what is excluded, they could file a referendum to challenge it at the ballot box.
Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, attempted to add a way for township trustees to either add or remove themselves from a county area excluding wind and solar projects, but that language didn’t make it into the bill.
The bill would add two temporary members to the Ohio Power Siting Board considering each project: a county commissioner and a township trustee representing the area.
Some wind and many solar projects that are pending now wouldn’t need to face a county commissioner’s vote. They would be grandfathered in.
What’s the best way to tackle wind and solar?
Although only a handful of solar projects are in operation in Ohio, about three dozen projects are in some stage of development. Amazon alone has 14 projects in Ohio.
Development of wind farms has become more difficult since legislators put restrictions on their location in 2014. Still, the state approved a project for Lake Erie last year called Icebreaker and a project for northern Ohio on June 24 called Emerson Creek.
Ohio’s existing wind farms are concentrated in northwest Ohio in Van Wert and Paulding counties. But residents in Huron, Erie, Sandusky and Seneca counties worry about projects proposed there. Residents from that area were the first to show up at the Statehouse, asking legislators to give them more local control over the projects.
Seitz said Ohio’s suburban residents want wind turbines in their state but not in their backyards.
“They think it’s just fine to put these monstrosities all over rural Ohio, to ruin the landscape in rural Ohio, to create 600-foot-tall structures with moving parts where the blades break and the fires start and the birds and bats are chopped to smithereens,” Seitz said.
But Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, argued that some of those rural landowners want these projects on their farms. By excluding wind and solar projects, Ohio lawmakers take away those farmers’ property rights.
“To trump these rights of the actual landowner, I think you’re getting into very dangerous territory,” Boggs said.
Solar and wind operations could also bring billions of dollars in investments and hundreds of construction jobs. A greener Ohio is also a selling point for businesses looking to locate in the state, economic development officials say.
“It’s part of the conversation nearly every time,” said Kenny McDonald, the chief economic officer of One Columbus, an 11-county economic development group
For example, 15 companies looking at investing $14 billion in central Ohio and creating 20,000 jobs say they either require or prefer renewable energy as their power source, McDonald said in March.
If Ohio imposes more strict rules on wind and solar projects, those businesses might go elsewhere.
Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, says her problem with the proposed law comes down to fairness: the bill treats renewables differently than oil or coal operations in the state.
“The Legislature should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the energy sector in the state of Ohio,” she said.
Opponents of the bill also argue that the Ohio Power Siting Board’s process of approving projects is rigorous enough and includes input from local residents. The board recently rejected the Seneca County wind project, after all.
“To get approval, you basically know it’s gone through every step it needs, that the project is going to be OK for the community,” said David Kell, executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce and the Madison County Community Improvement Corp.
Adding more steps to the approval process adds uncertainty – something all businesses loathe. But Reineke doesn’t see extra steps as a hurdle but rather a necessary step for projects to succeed.
“Local support is your key to success,” he said on the Senate floor. “This bill does not prevent these developments from taking place. It simply creates a framework to ensure that community support for a project has a real and meaningful impact within the siting process.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding