Timber Road II wind project in western Ohio. Credit: David Grant / Creative Commons

An Ohio lawmaker who played a key role in tripling property line setbacks for wind turbines wants regulators to adopt strict rules when implementing the setbacks and other provisions for new commercial wind farms, which industry experts say are already effectively banned in the state.

“If wind farms cannot be developed without borrowing or stealing their neighbors’ nonresidential property in order to satisfy the setback, health, and safety requirements, then perhaps they should not be developed at all,” state Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) asserted in comments filed on October 31 with the Ohio Power Siting Board, of which Seitz is a non-voting member.

The proposed rules aim to implement setback provisions in Ohio House Bill 483, mandating that each wind turbine be about a quarter of a mile from any adjoining property line. The proposed rules would also require measurements at the property lines for sound and so-called flicker effects, additional bird monitoring, and added studies and technical reports.

Critics say the rules are not based on safety or health.

“What HB 483 put in place in terms of setbacks essentially functions as a ban on wind energy in Ohio,” said Andrew Gohn at the American Wind Energy Association.

Zoned out

The provisions “effectively zoned new wind projects out of the state, decimating the prospect of new wind projects, and injuring clean energy progress,” said Miranda Leppla in comments filed with the Power Siting Board on behalf of the Ohio Environmental Council.

Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati)

Before HB 483 came into effect, the required property line setback for turbines on Ohio wind farms was roughly 550 feet, or 110 percent of the height of a turbine.

“One hundred ten percent of the turbine height to the property line is what we see pretty universally,” Gohn said. “That’s really sort of the safety-based standard in case of any sort of issue with the turbine.”

Beyond that, the law before HB 483 called for a 1,125-foot setback to the outer wall of the “nearest, habitable, residential structure” on neighboring property.

That kind of requirement is “really sort of a good neighbor policy of having a separation distance to existing occupied structures,” rather than a safety standard, Gohn said.

The new setback terms were a last-minute addition to a massive 2014 budget review bill. Seitz was the only lawmaker to speak in favor of that provision during less than 10 minutes of discussion on the Ohio Senate floor.

“When the statute was passed, there was no public discussion and no analysis on whether or not the increased setback distance was necessary, as it was enacted hastily in Ohio House Bill 483,” said Leppla.

As a result of the 2014 changes, industry experts say, most new and previously planned wind farms have become uneconomical. For example, one previously planned project for a 50-turbine wind farm would only have been able to have seven turbines, and another would have gone from 75 to three.

“There’s really no science that backs up any of the concerns” noted in Seitz’s comments to the Power Siting Board about health and safety, Gohn said. “We have over 20 peer-reviewed studies that have found no evidence of harm from proximity to wind turbines,” he added.

Seitz’s list of stricter standards and safety concerns is “spurious, and largely reliant on anti-wind websites as its source for the data,” Leppla said. “Further, much of the information he points to comes from locations outside the United States, many of which have extremely backward energy policies.”

In the wake of its announced commitment to coal, for example, Poland’s conservative government adopted a property line setback earlier this year that is 10 times the turbine height. Lawmakers there passed the new requirement in an unusual legislative procedure that, as in Ohio, did not allow for any committee hearings or testimony from industry or environmental groups.

Some statements noted in the materials submitted by Seitz were also taken out of context or were made by people whose jobs did not actually deal with the regulation of wind energy, Gohn added.

Stalled development

“Until 2014, Ohio was attracting millions of dollars in investment in new wind energy projects. As a result, Ohio’s air quality improved, new jobs were created, and local governments began seeing new revenue coming in to support their operations,” Leppla said.

Those investments dropped off during the debates that led to the current freeze on Ohio’s renewable energy standards. Although the state’s solar industry has continued to expand somewhat, new in-state wind installations have almost ground to a halt in the wake of HB 483.

The provisions have effectively resulted in “a moratorium on new wind development,” Leppla said.

Seitz called that statement “feckless,” noting that “there are approximately a dozen wind farms that were certificated before the 2014 setback law changed.” Those projects could still be built under the old law, he noted.

That exception is largely illusory, according to Gohn.

“If they make any, even very minor changes to their turbine layout or their project plan, which projects do fairly routinely as they are going through their development phases, they don’t really have the ability to take advantage of that grandfathering,” Gohn explained.

For example, he said, equipment updates for a project after the initial go-ahead might require minor shifts in turbine positions — which would not be within the exception. Developers need to be able to make those adjustments, Gohn said.

Notwithstanding the hassles, Amazon announced on October 31 that it would be working with EverPower to develop a 189-megawatt wind farm in Hardin County. That site had already been granted a certificate from the Power Siting Board before passage of HB 483.

And no land-based wind farms without a prior certificate have been approved since that the law passed.

“Ohio is losing billions of dollars of investment as a result of attacks on Ohio’s clean energy policies and these overly restrictive setbacks,” Leppla said. “Until these policies are fixed, Ohio will see fewer jobs, less investment, and dirtier air.”

A bill introduced in 2015 would give local counties the ability to revert to the prior setbacks if they wanted, and AWEA supports that legislation, Gohn said.

However, Republican-sponsored HB 190 has been held up in committee, and Seitz has made negative statements about the bill.

“When wind developers look at Ohio, they see overly restrictive and overtly hostile policies,” Leppla said. “This isn’t a climate any business wants to operate in.”

In Gohn’s view, that’s a shame for customers, because wind energy costs have come down, and wind energy is not subject to the types of price fluctuations that electricity from natural gas or other fuels can experience.

HB 483 and the proposed rules also affect where other industries do business, Gohn said, as does the state’s current freeze on its renewable energy standards.

Just last month, nine companies employing about 25,000 people in Ohio called on the state’s lawmakers to reinstate its clean energy standards. Dozens more companies have committed to moving to 100 percent renewable energy for their electricity.

A failure to bring back wind energy development could exclude Ohio from companies’ consideration as they decide where to continue or expand their business operations, Gohn said.

“It can have a real cascading impact on economic development in the state,” he noted.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.

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