Turbines imperiled by shifting political winds
After seven years of development, controversy and exhaustive legal examination, the two wind farms planned for Champaign County might soon be put on the scrap heap because of recent state legislation that discourages their construction.
It’s too soon to say for certain because the proposed projects continue to be affected by ambiguity on many fronts, but EverPower’s comments to the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday sounded like the beginning of the end of Buckeye Wind.
“It’s clear this development isn’t wanted here … and it gives us less confidence in where Ohio is moving forward,” Michael Speerschneider, EverPower’s chief permitting and public-policy officer, told the Dispatch. “We’ll take that message to heart.”
After Gov. John Kasich signed legislation on Friday that stops increases in requirements for the use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, the prospect of any new large-scale wind development in the state probably is gone. The legislation also repealed a rule that had required utilities to get half of their renewable energy from in-state sources. That component has been key to making Ohio-produced wind energy competitive with that in cheaper markets to the west.
Making the wind farms appear to be even more of a long-shot now is an amendment to Ohio’s midyear budget-review bill that will lengthen the proposed setbacks between wind turbines and adjacent properties. The amendment fundamentally shifts where wind turbines can be built. State law specifies that turbines must be at least 1,250 feet from the nearest house. The new amendment measures that distance from the nearest property line rather than the building. Lengthening the setbacks makes it less feasible to concentrate turbines in one area and too expensive to connect them all to the power grid. Kasich’s office hasn’t said whether the governor will veto the increased setback amendment. Wind energy proponents say if Kasich allows the longer setback distance, it will be the end of the line for the wind industry.
Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, and Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, support the amendment and have said it is crucial to protecting private-property rights of people who do not want a turbine near their land.
According to the Dispatch, as written, the setback legislation appears to grandfather in approved projects such as EverPower’s Buckeye Wind project in Champaign County and its Scioto Ridge project of 176 turbines in Hardin and Logan counties. Both were designed with setbacks measured from neighboring structures.
But Speerschneider told the Dispatch it is unclear whether any of the approved projects can move forward after the renewable energy freeze; any deadline extensions or changes in plans might require the company to adhere to the new setbacks. He said it probably will take a legal challenge to sort the issues out and, after having spent an estimated $10 million to plan, design and engineer its projects, EverPower would have to decide whether the fight would be worth it.
These definitions for what should limit or encourage wind development in Ohio are particularly confusing and annoying for residents of Champaign County. Institutions here, including the Champaign County Prosecutor’s Office, the city of Urbana and the Urbana Daily Citizen, have incurred extreme amounts of staff time and expenses to continue participating in and covering the developments of these proposed wind farms since 2007. In addition, opponents of the wind farms have spent a small fortune attempting to either stop the wind farms’ construction or put severe limitations on them. EverPower has spent significant time and money lobbying in Columbus throughout this process in order to keep Ohio’s terms as friendly to their speculative venture as what was put in place under former Gov. Ted Strickland.
Speerschneider’s comments to the Dispatch are more of the same attempts to manipulate the message in the capital city’s major media in order to keep the project viable in Ohio. EverPower has a history of trying to broadly affect popular opinion by sounding the alarm about any limitations on its projects. Such activity is understandably aimed at preserving EverPower’s business model.
The sad reality is that Champaign County continues to be stuck in limbo as the legal boundaries change with the political winds. Whether or not the wind farms are built here, there will be a sector of this community that feels hurt, betrayed and bitter. It will be another finger-pointing chapter in Champaign County’s history, much like the folklore that surrounds whose fault it was the 68 bypass was stunted decades ago and why other major industries never located here.
The most painful question now is which sector of our community will consider itself the loser in this wind saga – an exhausting drama that has yet to result in any of the millions of dollars in local government revenue or private-sector economic activity that has been used throughout to sell it here. To date, the only measurable result of this seven-year process so far has been mounting expenses and acrimony. We would like to exit purgatory now. Perhaps our escape is nearer now.