GREEN SPRINGS, Ohio — Ohio’s highly contentious debate over setback requirements for massive wind turbines is being played out in rural Seneca and Sandusky counties, where a company ready to invest $92 million vows to walk away unless the Ohio General Assembly comes up with rules much softer than those Gov. John Kasich signed into law in 2014.
It’s an odd situation politically, observers agree, because one of America’s fastest-growing industries is seeking relief from what it considers onerous and unreasonable rules placed upon it by a conservative majority three years ago.
Apex Clean Energy, of Charlottesville, Va., has notified the Ohio Power Siting Board it intends to develop a 66-turbine wind farm across those two counties, but only if it gets what it needs from elected officials.
The project is called Republic Wind. It is the first of five large wind farms, each capable of generating 200 to 450 megawatts of power, that Apex wants to start building in the northern half of the state by the end of 2020, a combined investment of $2.6 billion.
A single megawatt generates roughly the equivalent amount of electricity necessary to power 1,000 homes, meaning each of those wind farms — when operating at full capacity — could generate enough power for 200,000 to 450,000 homes. Each project is expected to create 95 to 200 well-paying construction jobs.
Last May, a 20-page report written by two Washington-based industry groups, the American Wind Energy Association and the Wind Energy Foundation, asserted Ohio’s losses in potential economic development since the 2014 rules took effect had reached a staggering $4.2 billion.
Former Ohio Sen. Cliff Hite (R., Findlay) responded by mobilizing support for a repeal through legislation known as Senate Bill 188. But little has happened since Mr. Hite introduced that bill Sept. 14.
A month later, on Oct. 16, Mr. Hite unexpectedly resigned after a female state employee accused him of sexual harassment. While admitting he had acted in a manner “not appropriate for a married man,” Mr. Hite maintained there was no physical contact.
Now comes Apex, offering to become the first company to build a wind farm since those 2014 rules went into effect. It unveiled its plans last Wednesday night at an open house in Green Springs, southeast of Fremont, and said it plans to file its construction application with the Ohio Power Siting Board within 90 days.
The deal’s off if the setback rules aren’t repealed, according to John Arehart III, Apex senior development manager, who told The Blade prior to the open house the behemoth machines could be installed within 18 months.
“It’s $92 million ready to come into the community, but our hands are tied,” Mr. Arehart said. “We’re willing to submit the application and get this project going. The community’s ready. It’s time for us to make that leap.”
The developer originally thought about erecting 80 turbines, each capable of producing 1.5 megawatts. But with giant machines now capable of producing 3 megawatts of power, it won’t need to install more than 66, Mr. Arehart said.
Ohio’s current setback rules came into effect almost simultaneously when the state’s two-year freeze on renewable energy mandates began in 2014.
Those required FirstEnergy Corp. and other utilities doing business in Ohio to get at least 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025, or purchase credits to offset differences. Mr. Kasich allowed that freeze to expire in 2016. But the setback rules, which the wind industry considers more crippling than the freeze, have not been rolled back.
Reasons for setbacks
The setback rules are designed to reduce noise, shadow flicker, and vibrations for nearby property owners who - unlike crop farmers leasing their land out to wind developers - aren’t financially compensated.
Opponents claim such annoyances amount to de facto takings of their property. The previous requirement of 1,125 feet between the extended tip of a wind turbine and the nearest home was changed in 2014 to 1,225 feet. That doesn’t sound much different, but it’s from property lines, not the nearest residence.
Mr. Kasich’s spokesman, Jon Keeling, said the governor will not comment because there is pending legislation.
Matt Schilling, Public Utilities Commission of Ohio spokesman, said that state board is unable to confirm or deny whether the $4.2 billion estimate in lost revenue is accurate. But he said it is “worth noting there are nine projects approved before 2014 that have not been built.”
“That tells us there’s more to it than simply the setbacks,” Mr. Schilling said.
Three of those nine are now under construction. One is the 55-turbine Timber Road II project in Paulding County. Two others are in Hardin County, the 200-turbine Hardin and 30-turbine Hog Creek I and II projects.
Ohio Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), the only northwest Ohio legislator who is a co-signer of Mr. Hite’s bill, said he is optimistic a solution will be reached.
"I have always believed Ohio is strongest when we embrace an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Mr. Gardner said. “Balanced wind setback rules should be part of the mix. I continue to believe that Senate Bill 188 - or something close to it - achieves that balance that results in pro-growth development that also considers property rights."
Ohio’s largest single construction project in 2011 was the $600 million, 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties, near the Ohio-Indiana line. If the 2014 setback rules were in effect back then, only a dozen of those turbines could have been built.
The Blue Creek Wind Farm provides 25 percent of Ohio State University’s electricity needs for its main campus, saving the university millions of dollars.
Like any area where wind farms are developed, there are strong differences of opinion even among people who consider themselves pro-environment: Some environmentalists love ‘em while many of those engaged in birding, duck hunting, or protecting other avian creatures - especially bats - hate ‘em.
For the Republic Wind project, Apex has amassed support from the Sandusky and Seneca boards of county commissioners, local school boards, and many other elected officials. It has support from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, dozens of farmers, and many major businesses, including Amazon, which has a wholly owned subsidiary supporting construction of Paulding and Hardin county wind farms.
An Oct. 10 letter to the Ohio Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee from Braden Cox, Amazon’s economic development director, states that it supports the bill introduced by Mr. Hite because it “would change the law to help foster more investment in developing wind energy resources and position Ohio for the 21st century economy.”
Gary Baldosser, who farms 2,000 acres in Seneca County’s Adams Township, is one of several farmers who staunchly support the project. They cite Apex estimates of $38.8 million in landowner payments, $36 million in school payments, and $18 million in county and township payments - money that, in addition direct lease payments, will benefit them from lowering their tax burden for schools and roads.
“I think a full repeal would be ideal. But at the same time, a compromise must be reached,” Mr. Baldosser, a former board member of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and a longtime volunteer fireman, said.
He said he became enamored with large wind turbines after seeing them for the first time while in Europe about a decade ago, prompting him to step up as a point person on the issue. He testified before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee in support of them on June 7.
“We’ve been active in advocating for more reasonable setbacks,” Seneca County Commissioner Shayne Thomas said. “There’s not a lot of economic activity out here. It’s a big deal for [Adams] Township.”
Roger Steinmetz, 60, who farms 160 acres in Seneca County’s Thompson Township, said he sees no negatives and believes the giant machines are better than relying so heavily on coal-fired power.
Such thoughts were echoed by Arnie Depinet, 57, who farms 2,000 acres in Seneca County’s Scipio and Reed townships. He said he is impressed by dollars Apex could bring to the community, and is convinced the company is “here for the long run.”
Bird, bat concerns
But birders such as Mark Shieldcastle, Black Swamp Bird Observatory research director and former head of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ bald eagle recovery program, continue to fiercely oppose wind farms because of what they see as a lack of mortality data. He said he wants more access to raw industry data on bird and bat kills.
“Literally, it is hidden from the public. It’s atrocious. They’re underestimating mortality by magnitudes,” Mr. Shieldcastle said. “There’s a series of mathematical computations that each [industry study] lowballs. The big thing is getting the data transparent.”
Ohio’s 2014 siting restrictions are among the nation’s best for wildlife now, and should not be compromised or repealed, according to Mr. Shieldcastle, who said he also wants to know more how the Republic Wind project could affect migrating ducks along Sandusky Bay and migrating songbirds along the western Lake Erie shoreline, both of which fly a lot at night.
At least a couple of grassroots groups concerned about private property rights are mobilizing, drawing from lessons learned by residents in Michigan’s Lenawee County and other areas who have successfully fended off major wind projects.
Chris Zeman, 41, a Norfolk-Southern locomotive engineer, said his fledgling group, Seneca Anti-Wind Union, is mobilizing opposition via Facebook, and soon expects to be more active with yard signs and meetings.
“The problem is we don’t know how long these turbines are going to last,” Mr. Zeman said. “Those setbacks need to be in the hands of voters.”
Dennis Albert, 68, of tiny Greenwich, Ohio, in nearby Huron County, said his group, Greenwich Neighbors United, also will mount a challenge to the project.