Local control, or killing renewables? Bill sparks debate

Credit: Xuanyu Han/Getty Images.

A bill that would allow neighbors to block wind turbines and solar arrays in the rural corners of Ohio is sparking an intense debate over land owners’ rights and local control.

Two bills are making their way through the legislature that would allow small groups of citizens to block solar and wind farms after they’re already permitted.

“People have a right to know how these projects are going to affect their landscape,” one of the sponsors, Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, said in a February statement announcing the legislation, Senate Bill 52. “This is not a universal blockage of these projects, but is simply giving the community a voice and ensuring their opinions are heard.”

Under the legislation, if the Ohio Power Siting Board permits a big solar array or wind turbine that is at least partly in an unincorporated part of a township, a petition can be gotten up to call an election on whether to block it. The petition only requires a number of voter signatures equal to at least 8% of the ballots cast in the unincorporated area in the most recent gubernatorial election.

That doesn’t seem like many signatures. With just 56% of voters turning out in the 2018 gubernatorial election, finding just 8% of that number in a sparsely populated area might not be too tough a feat.

Investors say they would shy away from undertaking the expense of site acquisition, planning and permitting a renewable-energy project if so few can jeopardize its future. In written testimony, Jeff Reinkemeyer of Avangrid Renewables on Tuesday noted that nascent projects are “incredibly capital-intensive.”

If SB 52 or its companion, House Bill 118, were to become law, they “would exponentially increase development risk, making it unlikely that any developer could, or would choose to, afford investing in renewables projects in Ohio,” Reinkemeyer said.

The power siting board requires public notice and public comment as part of its permitting process, which renewable companies said is exhaustive. Even so, one of HB 118’s sponsors, Rep. Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, said the additional measures are about local control.

“As a state legislator in Northwest Ohio, I represent the counties with the most wind development in the state,” he said in a statement. “The beauty of this bill is that it gives local control to township residents for them to decide whether wind or solar development is welcome to move forward or stopped where it is not welcome.”

In testimony earlier this month before the House Public Utilities Committee, Ann Wright of Seneca County agreed. She was one of about 100 who submitted testimony in support of the legislation.

“Please support giving everyone a voice by voting, which is only fair since wind and solar projects transform communities in such a big way,” she told lawmakers in written testimony. “Local citizens should be the ones deciding whether the promised benefits are valid and whether they outweigh the negatives which come with such industrialization.”

But on Tuesday, more than 150 raised written objections to the House and Senate bills. 

They included groups concerned about global warming, local chambers of commerce and the Columbus Partnership — a group of senior executives from leading Central Ohio businesses. Alex Fischer, the group’s president and CEO, said that 15 companies are considering investing $14 billion in the region, which would potentially create 20,000 jobs.

“Each of those investment opportunities either require or prefer renewables (such as wind and solar) as the source of energy,” Fischer said.

Many farmers also testified against the legislation. A theme for them was property rights.

“As a farmer, I take on all the risk brought by mother nature,” said Michael Lutmer of Highland County. “Diversification into a solar project represents a unique opportunity to supplement my volatile farming income with an income stream that is fixed over the life of the project.”

Of the potential restrictions, he asked: “What’s next, where I can park my truck, build my barn or how big my house can be?”

The sponsors of legislation that would make it easier to block wind and solar projects say that they’re supporting local control. But a look at campaign finance reports might reveal other motives. 

McColley’s campaign committee, Citizens for McColley, in its 2020 annual report said that it had received $9,250 from energy interests such as Duke Energy, Transcanada USA, Marathon Petroleum and Exxon Mobile. 

FirstEnergy, the company at the heart of the scandal, last year also gave $1,000 each to the committees of Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, and Rep. Dick Stein, R-Norwalk, cosponsors of the wind and solar legislation in their respective chambers.

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