WOOSTER, Ohio — The state’s first two major wind farms were built in western Ohio roughly three years ago on the promises they would bring new revenue to landowners, schools and communities, and, of course, produce an affordable source of alternative energy.
The projects, known as Timber Road Wind Farm and Blue Creek Wind Farm, are still young. But, according to managers of both, they’re already performing.
“The (Blue Creek) project has delivered what we said it would,” said Dan Litchfield, senior project developer.
That includes about $2.7 million in annual tax payments, $2 million annually in lease agreement payments, $600 million from the company that built the farm, and enough energy to power about 76,000 homes.
Blue Creek, in Paulding and Van Wert counties, is owned and operated by Iberdrola Renewables, an Oregon-based leader in wind energy. The farm also has a partnership with Ohio State University that provides wind energy research to students and supplies the OSU-Columbus campus with wind energy credits amounting to about 25 percent of the university’s electric needs.
Timber Road Wind Farm, Paulding County, is owned by Texas-based EDP Renewables. Its 55 turbines have a capacity of 99 megawatts — enough to power 27,000 homes each year.
Brian Alberts, operations manager, said he’s pleased with the operation and overall viability of the turbines so far, as well as the wind speed.
“We see production as it was anticipated,” he said.
But while Ohio’s first two wind farms were promising and now have some proof to back them up, the rest of the state is at a critical point, waiting to see which way the wind will blow.
The wind itself hasn’t changed, but the political and regulatory climate has.
In June, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed S.B. 310, which froze the state’s renewable energy standard at current levels for the next two years, and also created a legislative study committee to determine if the renewable standard should stay or be amended.
And, days later, Kasich signed H.B. 483, which increases the setback distance of state-approved wind turbines to 1,125 feet, from the tip of a turbine’s blades to the nearest property line. The previous law measured the setback from the turbine to the nearest habitable residence.
The new laws have changed how energy companies in Ohio consider wind projects, and whether they’re worth constructing.
“It’s a disappointment because we planned these projects because of the policies that have been in place,” Litchfield said. “The change is not an encouragement to invest more in the state.”
Beyond these two farms, Ohio has approved wind farms in more than a half-dozen counties totaling 764 wind turbines, with a production potential of up to 1,401 megawatts. And there are at least four wind farms that have been proposed, in Ashtabula, Crawford and Seneca counties, as well as on Lake Erie.
The future of these projects could hinge, at least in part, on Ohio’s new policy.
“On a rudimentary level, any time you increase the setback, you reduce the amount of space that could potentially be used,” Alberts said.
But space is only part of the issue — the other is market demand.
If the state continues to relax its energy standard, or eventually does away with it, that could significantly change the incentives for wind and utility companies to invest in wind.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Scott Potter, senior energy adviser for Ohio State University.
Potter oversees the university’s energy usage and research, and negotiated the contract with Blue Creek to purchase 50 megawatts of energy credits to run the university, and to serve as an energy research project.
In its worst case, Potter said changes to the standard could “have a chilling effect” on future wind farms.
But at the same time, “there are a number of positive signs that have us optimistic,” said Paul Copleman, communications manager for Iberdrola.
Those include greater efficiency, incentives for landowners and communities, job opportunities and clean energy.
Ohio leads the nation in wind-related manufacturing, according to American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. Ohio also has wind resources available both on and offshore.
“Publicly, there seems to be an appetite,” Copleman said. “Wind works and works well.”
And while energy mandates certainly help to spur demand, there are other reasons why utility companies still want wind.
Most utility companies still have green energy plans in place — although without a mandate, they have more decision power over what they do.
Terri Flora, director of communications for AEP Ohio, told Farm and Dairy in June that AEP agreed with the governor on freezing the mandate, but, at the same time, she said the company would continue offering its energy-saving programs to customers, which includes discounts and rebates.
“We believe and know there is a place at the table” for renewable energy, Flora said, adding that “just because you support (the freeze) does not mean you’re against advanced energy or renewables.”
Monica Jensen, vice president of development for Windlab Developments USA, which plans to build the Greenwich Wind Farm in Huron County, said wind farms can guarantee a price to power companies for up to 20 years in advance.
The Greenwich Wind Farm was approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board Aug. 25.
Contrary to speculation, Jensen said the 25-turbine project is being privately funded, with no subsidies.
Pros and cons
The Greenwich project, like most wind farms, has been heavily contested by concerned residents. Road signs of support and discontent dot streets and the fronts of properties. And at least one major action group has formed in opposition to the project: Greenwich Neighbors United.
Concerns include damage to wildlife, noise, human health concerns and cost, among others.
Jensen said one of the biggest issues is communication. She said “there’s a lot of misinformation that gets passed around pretty quickly.”
Her company tries to answer questions about the project, but it’s reached a point of “back and forth study volley,” she said, adding that what it boils down to is “some people just don’t like them.”
While a wind turbine does stand out, standing nearly 500 feet tall, wind companies work to fit the turbines in with existing topography. The companies also allow as much normal activity — such as farming — as close to the turbines as is reasonable.
The Greenwich Wind Farm includes a lease region of more than 4,600 acres, however, the turbines and access roads usually take up less than an acre per turbine. Farmers are compensated through their lease agreements.
“A lot of the farmers are happier in the end because the wind energy companies allow them to use the access roads,” Potter said. “They lose very little agricultural acreage.”
A wind farm of 5 megawatts or more must receive a siting certificate by the 11-member Ohio Power Siting Board. The process includes a statutory review and public hearings.
The board consists of seven voting members: the chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, directors of the Ohio EPA, the departments of agriculture, natural resources and health, the Development Services Agency and a public member.
Matt Butler, public outreach manager for the board, said the board does an “across-the-board review” of proposals, including the environmental impacts, public health and safety, and how well the proposed facility fits with the existing power structure.
In the case of wind farms, the developer must also specify a plan for decommissioning the project, in the event that it should cease operations. Certificates often require the land be restored to pre-construction conditions or better.
Listening to concerns
Butler said the board conducts investigations, meets with project developers and holds public hearings in the communities where the projects are proposed.
He said public comments are reviewed, and board members often learn new things through those comments.
For the most part, people are “very civil and polite,” but at the same time, it can be emotional.
“Any time someone is proposing to build something in your neighborhood, people react differently,” he said.
Butler said the board strives to be neutral and unbiased toward which power sources it approves, and also does not get involved with lease agreements among property owners.
“We’re not a proponent of one resource over the other,” he said.
As for which direction future wind farms will go, Butler said “it’s really up to the developers at this point.”
When they have an approved certificate in hand, he said, they’re free to do what they want.
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