July 12 update: Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 52 into law July 12. The bill creates decommissioning requirements for certain wind and solar facilities and allows more local input and control over location for certain renewable energy projects.
When she first heard about the Seneca Wind project, Shanna Price was intrigued. The project proposed putting more than 70 wind turbines on about 25,000 acres of land, in Seneca County, Ohio. It would create 200 megawatts of power.
“I thought, this is kind of exciting,” said Price, of Eden Township. “I went to the informational meeting very positive about it and very interested to learn more about how things were going to possibly benefit our community here, locally.”
She went to the meeting, hosted by Utah-based developer sPower in April 2018, along with dozens of other people from the area who wanted to learn more about what the project would mean for them individually, and for the community.
“I was very disappointed when I went to the meeting,” Price said. “I expected a presentation or some handouts or information to learn about it. I quickly learned that this was a ‘check the box’ sort of meeting.”
The meeting was supposed to present the project to the community and establish a relationship between the developer and the residents. For many, it was their first introduction to the Ohio Power Siting Board’s approval process for large scale renewable energy projects. One where they found they have little power to initiate change, and one that may soon change to give local opposition groups more power.
Senate Bill 52 would give locals a say in whether utility-scale wind and solar projects can come into their communities. Right now, only the Ohio Power Siting Board has the power to regulate large renewable energy projects.
The legislation is powering its way through the House Public Utilities committee this week. It was introduced by Republican Sens. Bill Reineke, of Tiffin, and Rob McColley, of Napoleon, in February.
Senate Bill 52 passed the Ohio Senate, June 2, and has momentum in the House Public Utilities committee. A committee hearing was held June 16. Subsequent hearings are being held this week: one on June 22; another on June 23; and a fourth is set for June 24 at 9 a.m.
The process to get approval from the state is rigorous, according to renewables developers. Wind projects producing more than 5MW of power and solar facilities producing more than 50MW are regulated solely by the state. It can take months, even years, to get together the necessary studies to even file an application with the state board.
How SB 52 would work
The bill would require developers to bring a proposed utility-scale solar or wind project before the board of county commissioners before applying with the Ohio Power Siting Board. The developer would have to hold a public meeting.
The commissioners then have three options: do nothing, pass a resolution banning the project or pass a resolution limiting the geographic area of the project.
If the commissioners do nothing for 90 days after the public meeting, that means the project is approved. The project would then move on to the existing Ohio Power Siting Board process.
County commissioners could also pass a blanket ban on solar and wind development within the county or create districts where such energy development is prohibited. Residents could petition for a referendum to vote on the creation of such districts.
SB 52 would also add two members to the Ohio Power Siting Board on a case-by-case basis for wind and solar projects. One member would be appointed by county commissioners and one by township trustees.
The Ohio Power Siting Board requires developers to host two events to gather public input at the beginning of the certification process. The first is an informational meeting that’s held before the certificate application is filed.
The second is a public hearing, where residents are allowed to give five minute of public testimony. Testimony is recorded by a court reporter and submitted to the case record. There is also an adjudicatory hearing. Parties to the case can submit prewritten testimony and be cross examined.
Local residents, businesses and organizations can file to become an intervener in a case. Though legal counsel is not required for residents to request to intervene, many feel like it’s necessary to be taken seriously.
Local governments can automatically become interveners, but must have legal counsel. Interveners have the right to participate fully in any hearings, file for a rehearing or appeal a board decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Most renewables projects that get through the entire state approval process get certified, regardless of whether there is significant local opposition. That is the frustrating part to people living in the shadows of these projects.
Chris Aichholz, of Bloom Township, was also optimistic when he first heard about Seneca Wind. He even called the developer to see if he could be get more information or be involved in the project somehow, since he has about 15 acres of land he rents to someone to farm. And he too was disappointed after going to the informational meeting. Instead of an interactive presentation, there were maps on display boards. The maps were hard to decipher.
“It was like they made them purposefully hard to figure out and get your bearings,” Aichholz said.
Aichholz said he figured out he would have 22 turbines within a mile of his house. A neighbor down the road, Kim Groth, would have 19 within a mile of her house.
“My concerns were initially visual. I chose a historic home in a historic area,” Groth said. She and her husband renovated a stone house built in the 1840s. Her concerns grew and evolved as she learned more about the project: the ambient noise, property values and the environmental impacts on a maternal bat colony that lives on their property.
“My concerns are my concerns and they’re valid,” she said. “I own this property and have property rights here. It’s not just me. It’s the whole community that this impacts. It’s thousands of people. And even when we have the whole community, we don’t seem to have any control in what’s happening in our own neighborhood as a group.”
After the informational meeting, Price, Aichholz, Groth and others joined a group called the Seneca Anti-Wind Union, which formed after the Republic Wind was announced the previous fall. They figured if they organized, maybe they could get answers and shape or, if necessary, stop the project. But they quickly found that it wasn’t that simple.
First, they thought the township’s zoning code could provide some guidance or help. That’s why Price said she moved to the area in the first place.
“As I learned more about this project … I quickly realized that I was going to be living in the middle of an industrial energy project,” Price said. “I chose to live where I do, because Eden Township is zoned. We’re zoned that nothing higher than 100 feet in Eden Township can get built. How could this happen if I live in a township that is zoned.”
Next, they went to the county commissioners, but found again that there was no power there. The group then focused their efforts on the state process.
“For the adjudicatory hearing, you’ve got to have a lawyer,” Aichholz said. “The developers have great counsel. You need to have representation. We held fundraisers and raffles. We’ve done everything we could imagine to raise money to pay for representation.”
Jim Thompson, of Shawnee Township, went through a similar situation when he first heard about the Birch Solar project last fall. He first heard about the project to put a 300-MW solar field on 1,400 acres in Allen and Auglaize counties on the nightly news.
He first reached out to his township trustees, but they couldn’t provide much more information than what was out there already. Then he reached out to the developer, Lightsource BP, to ask some questions about water runoff and other concerns.
Unsatisfied with the answers he was getting, Thompson helped form Against Birch Solar LLC to organize and educate the community.
“The only thing you can do is post a comment on their website and request to give testimony or intervene, and you wonder how effective that is when basically none of these projects are rejected,” he said.
Seneca Wind eventually withdrew its application in August 2019 and the developer in January 2020 announced it was suspending the project. But the projects keep coming.
The Seneca Anti-Wind Union turned its attention to the Republic wind project, developed by Apex Clean Energy, that calls for putting more than 40 turbines in Seneca and Sandusky counties. The Republic Wind project is up for approval June 24.
Going to the top
The Seneca Anti-Wind Union went to Reineke to appeal for more local control after they realized they were out of options. They knew there were others across the state in the same boat. Before Senate Bill 52, there was similar legislation introduced by McColley and Reineke, when Reineke was a state congressman, to allow for a local referendum to approve wind projects.
Senate Bill 52 garnered hundreds of pieces of testimony, both for and against. Many agricultural groups, like Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Soybean Association and the state’s livestock groups, submitted testimony opposing the legislation. The groups say they understand the need for more public input, but feel this type of local control targeting land use infringes on private property owner’s rights and could become a slippery slope.
Energy developers and environmental advocacy groups have also come out in opposition of the bill, saying it is unfairly targeting renewable energy projects. Only the state can regulate the oil and gas industry. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that local governments do not have the power to ban or regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, through zoning laws or other restrictions.
Thompson said that just because the wrong decision was made then about how to regulate oil and gas doesn’t mean the same wrong decision needs to be made in regards to renewable energy.
“The state bought into oil and gas claims that fracking was safe. It’s been pretty well proven that was wrong,” he said. “So what are we doing now with this industry, taking them at their word?”
The grassroots opposition groups are pulling for SB 52 to pass. It gives them hope for some amount of power over these types of projects, even if it’s at the county level. Appealing to county commissioners is easier than appealing to a state board in Columbus.
“Something is better than nothing,” Aichholz said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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