CLEVELAND, Ohio – Republican lawmakers in Columbus have repeatedly made things easier for energy interests in the state, and that includes blocking local control over where oil and gas wells can go.
Now Gov. Mike DeWine is being asked to sign a bill that takes an opposite approach. It provides local control over matters of power production, but only where they involve proposed large-scale wind and solar farms.
The dichotomy is not lost on Democrats in the legislature and a number of Republicans as well who see a fundamental unfairness in Senate Bill 52, which would give elected county officials the power to veto large wind and solar projects, or to block them from certain geographic areas altogether.
“First and foremost is the inconsistency with how we treat our energy generation,” said Ohio Rep. Laura Lanese, a Republican from Grove City, in explaining why she opposed SB 52.
Lanese understands why somebody wouldn’t want live next to a vast field of solar panels, but she also doesn’t believe locals in that instance should have a greater chance to intervene than those living next to a proposed gas plant or fracking operation.
“We do not give local control to fracking, which also harms property values and has an environmental component to it,” she said.
The Ohio Power Siting Board must approve all utility scale power plants in the state before they can become operational, but SB 52 would add the additional layer of local government regulation on wind and solar projects that neither coal, gas or nuclear power plants would face.
While Ohio is unlikely to see another request to build a coal-fired or nuclear power plant, the same cannot be said for natural gas plants or fracking operations, said Tracy Freeman, government relations director for the Nature Conservancy of Ohio
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used to extract natural gas and oil deep in the earth and from once inaccessible areas. It falls under the domain of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The bill allows residents to petition their elected county officials to designate areas where large wind and solar farms cannot be built. It also gives those same officials the ability to prevent individual projects from being developed, except those already in development that meet a certain requirements.
And if a project does go before the Power Siting Board, two local representatives with votes in the final say must be added to the board on an ad hoc basis. The board has 11 regular members, seven of whom vote.
Sen. Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls who voted against SB 52, said that instead of giving counties veto power, the legislature should have limited the bill to expanding the Ohio Power Siting Board to include local representation.
As it stands, he said, SB 52 will have a chilling impact on investment in Ohio.
Proponents of the legislation have said they are responding to their constituents who don’t want to live beside solar farms or towering wind turbines with spinning blades that reach 600 feet into the air.
“The people who live there don’t want to look at them,” said Ohio Sen. President Matt Huffman, a Republican from Lima in northwest Ohio where the wind farms are most prevalent. He said large wind turbines “ruin the character” of an area.
Property owners living around the fracking operations that began popping up in eastern Ohio more than a decade ago would have appreciated similar consideration, Freeman said, but no such recourse was available despite efforts by some Democrats in the legislature.
Neighbors complained about seismic events and dried up wells would have loved the opportunity to control what was happening around them, said Freeman, who worked for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency at the time.
“It should be a level playing field for all power sources,” she said.
Why isn’t it?
Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican from Napoleon in Northwest Ohio and the primary negotiator on behalf of SB 52, said comparing wind and solar with other forms of energy creation is apples and oranges because erecting large scale wind or solar farms is a “transformative land use.”
Far more acres are needed to produce a single megawatt of electricity from solar panels or wind turbines “than it does to produce that same megawatt with natural gas or coal or nuclear or any other baseload form of power,” he said.
Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said such thinking doesn’t take in the whole picture. Wind and solar may have larger footprints, he said, but fossil fuels have their own “externalities.”
“We’re worried about our drinking water and our asthma rates,” Sawmiller said.
He also said McColley ignores the fact that solar farms can be largely hidden from sight behind vegetation screens.
Lanese also disagrees with McColley’s assertion that the vast scale of wind and solar projects justifies treating them differently than other forms of energy generation. She said the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants in Northern Ohio “have a very wide impact in both the footprint that they take up as well as what happens to their nuclear waste.”
McColley said fracking should not be compared to wind and solar farms because it’s not generation, per se, and because fracking is mineral extraction and can only occur where the resources are available.
“You can put a solar facility or a wind facility up probably anywhere in the state of Ohio,” he said.
Advocates would say that’s not the case. The best wind for generating electricity is in the northwestern quadrant of Ohio while most of the proposed solar farms are in the western half of the state where the land is flat.
Another factor that limits locations is the existence of transmission lines that can transfer the electricity to the grid.
Yet another explanation from McColley and Huffman as to why wind and solar should be treated differently is that they don’t contribute to the baseload that ensures the lights will always come on. Wind and solar are not reliable, McColley said because the technology for battery storage has not been mastered.
“Baseload power is necessary because we can’t have rolling blackouts,” he said.
Huffman said the wind and solar industries only generate a fraction of the state’s power and for that reason they are not vital enough to justify the downside that comes with them.
But advocates for renewable energy say relying on fossil fuels shouldn’t mean dismissing wind and solar.
“It is very important to keep a stable baseload,” Freeman said, but “that can be maintained while increasing and incentivizing and encouraging more renewables throughout the state for the transition.”
And by transition she means the inevitable switch away from fossil fuels toward renewable forms of energy that is occurring around the world.
The large fossil fuel giants are all investing in renewables and expanding their portfolios because they see the handwriting on the wall, Freeman said.
The debate over SB 52 was also about property rights. McColley and Huffman give preference to landowners who live near solar and wind farms and fear the value of their homes will go down
“It’s not to say that we don’t want wind and solar . . . ” McColley said. “It’s just that we look at it and say at what cost.”
But what about the rights of farmers to use their land as they see fit?
The Ohio Farm Bureau opposed the legislation because it stands in the way of what it believes are a landowner’s legal right to contract with a wind or solar power developer.
In testimony before the legislature, the Farm Bureau acknowledged shortcomings in the current process and the need for more upfront communication about a developer’s intentions but said SB 52 goes too far.
“Creating new government authority over land use goes many steps beyond solving the problem of more transparency and local input in favor of unconscionable restrictions of landowner rights,” states the written testimony of Jenna Reese, director of state policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau. “. . . County Commissioners do not have the authority to ban legal land uses without consent nor does state government have any authority to grant them that power,” her testimony reads.
While SB 52 is the most recent effort by the Republican-controlled legislature to choose sides in the battle over power generation, it is just one of many.
House Bill 201, which passed this year, prevents counties, cities and townships from restricting hookups to natural gas and the extension of pipelines, even though no political subdivisions in the state have taken such steps.
And language added to the recently passed biennial state budget promotes the leasing of gas and oil extraction on public lands.
House Bill 6, passed in 2019, has also been in the news. It gutted the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard, while providing subsidies for the state’s two nuclear power plants and a handful of coal plants – one in Ohio and the other in Indiana – belonging to the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation.
Since then former House Speaker Larry Householder has been charged with masterminding a $60 million bribery scheme to get HB 6 passed. As a result, some of bill’s components, including the bailout of the two nuclear plants, have been repealed.
What hasn’t been repealed? The planned phase out of the state’s renewable energy standards, which would only serve to bolster the wind and solar industries.
Ohio Rep. Jeff Crossman, a Democrat from Parma who serves as a non-voting member of the Power Siting Board, said Republicans are imposing local control on the renewables industry when really, local input is all that is needed.
Crossman, who sits on the House Public Utilities Committee, said has seen no coherent approach to establishing an energy policy for the state “or even an honest discussion about what it should look like.”
The final say is now before DeWine who has yet to sign the bill. A spokesman for the governor said Friday that he is still reviewing it.
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