State GOP lawmakers passed legislation around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning that bestows new powers unto county commissioners, allowing them kill wind and solar projects early in their development.
The bill, which now goes to Gov. Mike DeWine for consideration, would also allow commissioners to block wind or solar development in all or part of an unincorporated area of the county.
Citizens, however, can petition to place the restricted zone up for a public vote if petitioners amass a number of signatures equal to at least 8% of the total votes cast for governor in the county.
The legislation passed the Ohio Senate early Tuesday on a 21-12 vote, with four Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. It passed the House 52-43, with eight Republicans joining Democrats.
The proposal essentially creates a two-tiered system in which local officials wield powerful influence over potential renewable energy development but much less control over potential natural gas or oil development, which is overseen by the Ohio Power Siting Board.
Lawmakers just last week sent to DeWine legislation that prohibits counties from restricting residents’ use of natural gas or propane.
The lead sponsor on the wind and solar bill, Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, has said contrasting renewable energy policy and extractive energy policy is like comparing apples and oranges. House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, sidestepped a comparison renewables and natural gas development, calling the latter a “totally different issue.”
Supporters of the legislation said local officials and residents need more say in the power siting process, which is handled at the state level and doesn’t adequately consider locals’ wishes. Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., suggested residents of more affluent, urban counties would be up in arms about the prospect of hosting a wind or solar farm against their wishes.
“They think it’s just fine to put these monstrosities all over rural Ohio, to ruin the landscape in rural Ohio, to create 600-foot-tall structures with moving parts where the blades break and the fires start and the birds and bats are shot to smithereens,” he said.
“They think that’s just wonderful. Why? Because they’re not anywhere near it.”
Rep. Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, said the legislation is aimed at a “quality of life” issue and giving localities a voice at the same level. After the Senate passed its version of the bill earlier this month, Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said renewable energy isn’t providing enough generation in Ohio to warrant the avoidance of a potentially lethal county commission vote, unlike coal or gas.
Democrats voted against the legislation, with several drawing a line connecting the legislation to a coal and nuclear energy bailout from 2019 that’s now at the center of what prosecutors describe as the largest public corruption scandal in state history. Alongside the bailouts, the legislation gutted Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for utilities.
Both the bailout legislation and the wind and solar bill, they said, disproportionately benefitted the fossil fuel industry while stacking the deck against wind and solar development in the state.
Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, said the proposal cuts into the property rights of landowners who want to host renewable generation on their land. Nothing guarantees the uninterrupted views of corn and soybean fields, she said.
“There’s nowhere in our law that has ever designated the visual aesthetics of a property that is beyond your property line being something that you own or have a right to,” she said.
Wind and solar comprise a small percentage of Ohio’s energy mix, but dozens of projects are navigating the OPSB application process, which entails public hearings, environmental reviews, expensive filings and more.
It could be a big economic boom. Ohio University researchers conducted a study in August 2020 for the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition, projecting employment and economic implications for low, moderate and aggressive wind and solar development.
In the moderate scenario, they projected development would create about 36,000 construction phase jobs and 413 annual operations and maintenance jobs. These would drive $6.4 billion in construction phase impacts and $107 million over the 40-year lifetime of the projects.
Currently, 23 solar and one wind project are listed as pending review by the OPSB (wind development has been largely stagnant in Ohio after a 2014 law tripled the distance that wind turbines must be set back from property lines).
The new bill will not apply to solar projects that have already met application requirements with the PJM Interconnection, which controls the flow of wholesale electricity sales across regional states. It also gives local governments a formal vote on OPSB project applications within their jurisdictions.
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