The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Credit: Ɱ / Creative Commons

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Ohio lawmakers held second hearings this week on twin bills to erect more roadblocks to solar and wind energy in the state. 

Critics say the bills would infringe on individuals’ property rights, discourage new business investments in the state and make it nearly impossible to finance substantial renewable energy development.

Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 118 expand on themes from a failed 2019 bill that would have let 8% of voters in an area demand a referendum after Ohio Power Siting Board approval of wind farm projects, thus delaying or effectively cancelling the projects.

“It’s HB 401 all over again, but now solar is included,” said Neil Waggoner, Ohio representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “It’s another attempt to really slow down or stop the investment in and transition to renewable energy in the state.”

The new bills would apply to solar and wind farms but not nuclear power plants or any kind of fossil fuel projects. Developers would have to give 30 days’ prior notice to local governments before filing with the power siting board for any new wind or solar project. The bills also would apply to most modifications, such as changes to spacing or height.

Local government resolutions can then reject a public referendum, require one, or allow 8% of people who voted in the last governor’s election to seek a referendum. Any modification during the power siting board process could trigger the process all over again. And any referendum outcomes would not be known until well after any siting board certification.

Both bills also would expand property line setbacks. The existing setbacks for wind farm turbines are already triple what they were before a last-minute budget bill amendment in 2014. New setbacks would basically be an evacuation zone in the unlikely event that a turbine caught fire. By comparison, similar provisions don’t apply to natural gas operations, which have required evacuations.

“The bill singles out wind and solar and subjects them to levels of duplicative regulations that are not applied to other energy sources,” said Andrew Gohn, director of eastern state affairs for the American Clean Power Association. That discriminatory application “shows that it is the intent to slow the development of wind and solar in the state.”

Association members can operate in states with either local control or state regulation, but the bills’ duplicative call for local referenda at both the beginning and end of the state’s regulatory review “creates a really unfinanceable structure,” Gohn said. “No project could move forward with that level of regulatory uncertainty, and the mechanics of it are really problematic.”

‘The wrong response’

The sponsors and cosponsors of both bills are exclusively Republican. However, not all Republicans support the proposals.

“It sends the wrong response to all of the investment that wants to come to Ohio,” including not only renewable energy companies but also industrial companies that want access to clean energy, said Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City. “It’s an added layer of bureaucracy to companies that want to settle here.” In her view, the bills’ message is counter to “any pro-business environment, especially coming off the pandemic.”

In a similar vein, Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, challenged SB 52 sponsor Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, during the bill’s first hearing last month. “What is it that is so unique about your case that Ohio should completely change the way we have operated in siting capacity for generation?” Dolan asked.

Reineke claimed that solar and wind “are not regulated locally, like most other energy sources are.” In truth, the state allows almost no local government say on siting for natural gas operations, the state’s largest source of electricity generation. Siting of coal and nuclear facilities likewise is not subject to any local referenda.

“Plain and simple, we’re putting Ohio property rights on the ballot if these [bills] were to be passed,” said Tyler Duvelius, external affairs director for the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum. In his view, the bills would create “a slippery slope” for local governments to unreasonably interfere with individual property owners’ rights to do what they want with their own land. Moreover, leases for solar or wind farms provide farmers with an “opportunity to provide for their family,” he said, cushioning the impacts of bad years and providing capital for investments in good years.

Reineke also claimed procedures for residents to provide input to the power siting board are “meaningless” for wind and solar operations, although they are consistent with procedures for other types of energy generation. Reineke also complained that wind and solar farms are disruptive to communities. Critics say impacts pale in comparison to impacts from fossil fuel operations.

“I can’t imagine any industry more disruptive than the natural gas industry,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute. “The glaring discrepancy between the way the legislature proposes to regulate clean energy and the way in which it allows local government and property owner rights to be overridden by the fracking industry makes nonsense of supporters’ claims that this is anything but an attempt to protect natural gas and coal interests. Fracking for natural gas inflicts toxic emissions, noise, dust and truck traffic that have far more damaging effects on communities, peoples’ health and quality of life than anything associated with wind turbines or solar panels.”

Lawmakers heard proponent testimony at the March 9 hearings on the bills. Some speakers repeated anti-wind comments and other general objections from testimony they had offered on the failed 2019 bill. On both occasions, for example, Bloomville resident Kimberly Groth said, “the residents who will be most impacted spend our own money hosting spaghetti dinners and hog raffles to continue our fight in a system that is built to exclude us.”

Allen County resident Jim Thompson complained that solar panels for a proposed development will be 10 feet high. Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz claimed that “the citizenry is further muted when they discover projects of this scope and scale are being finalized behind their backs with no clear notification until it is too late.”

Power siting board rules already call for notices to affected property owners and local hearings. Those meetings have been held online during the pandemic, in contrast to the legislature, which continues to require in-person testimony. Power siting board hearing notices are posted on the board’s website.

Bill sponsors and proponents are “not looking at the process at the Ohio Power Siting Board. They’re not discussing changes to OPSB rules,” Waggoner said. The board is in the midst of a two-year process of reviewing those rules, and anti-wind groups, Reineke and Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, have participated as part of that review. That, to Waggoner, belies the bills’ alleged necessity for enhancing input.

Opponent testimony likely will begin when the committees convene again. And while it’s unclear whether the bills will pass, critics fear that the renewed push will put Ohio further behind in both the transition to a clean energy economy and in expanding general business opportunities within the state.

“If the state just had a level playing field, it’s wild to think where the state could be,” Waggoner said. 

Kathiann M. Kowalski

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.