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Update 5/26/21: A new substitute version of SB 52 was introduced May 25 that would substitute county governments for township boards in most cases. Both counties and townships could still nix projects.
An Ohio Senate committee is set to take up a proposal Tuesday that would give townships unprecedented control over wind and solar siting decisions.
The latest version of Senate Bill 52 would prevent wind or solar companies from applying to build projects unless townships first set up an “energy development district.” As few as 50 people in the smallest townships could force a referendum on the districts, and local boards would be able to veto projects even after they are approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board.
Fossil fuel, nuclear, and other energy projects would not be affected by the legislation, which has a companion version in the state House.
Clean energy advocates, who were already alarmed about the bill before the most recent changes, say the uncertainty and added requirements would create a de facto ban on utility-scale wind and solar across most of the state.
“There is just no reason why you would invest in Ohio if this bill passes,” said Jane Harf, executive director of Green Energy Ohio.
The legislation, which has received multiple hearings in both chambers, would also expand property line setbacks for wind and solar projects. Ohio’s wind setbacks are already among the strictest in the country.
Under the proposals, developers would not be allowed to file applications with the Ohio Power Siting Board until after a township has created a special district in which it will allow wind and solar projects.
After that, 8% of voters could compel a referendum on the decision, building in more uncertainty and months of added delay.
“It’s essentially a popularity contest,” said Rebecca Campbell, manager of market development for First Solar, headquartered in Ohio. “There’s no other state in the country that allows renewable energy to be halted through that process.”
A township board of trustees could decide that any particular project was not in the public interest at any point before the state has issued a final certificate. The local township finding then would be binding on the Ohio Power Siting Board.
“So trustees can effectively end a project at any time up until a certificate is issued,” said Jason Rafeld, executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition, based in Columbus.
Along the way, companies will have spent millions of dollars, Campbell said. The substitute bill language could apply to projects that already have spent huge amounts to file pending applications. Provisions might also be triggered if certain changes were necessary during construction, she noted.
SB 52 co-sponsor Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican from Napoleon who chairs the Energy and Public Utilities Committee, claimed the Ohio Power Siting Board should defer entirely to township trustees on the law’s public interest requirement. For support, he cited remarks from OPSB Chair Jenifer French’s confirmation hearing that the board lacks guidance.
Rafeld, a former chief of staff at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio who’s also very familiar with siting board activities, disagreed: “The staff at the OPSB is especially well trained. They’re hard-working. They are reviewing everything.” Few similar regulatory bodies in the country “have that caliber of staff,” he said.
The Ohio Power Siting Board’s voting members also are experts, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Ohio Senate, Campbell said. Yet McColley’s comment suggests “they don’t have the wherewithal to decide if these projects belong in Ohio,” she said. “If I were the OPSB, I would feel insulted by that.”
Targeted against renewables
“It really feels like this bill is specifically crafted to cause harm to our industry,” Campbell said.
The attempt to empower townships to block wind and solar projects comes as lawmakers are simultaneously debating whether to strip cities of authority to pass policies aimed at reducing fossil fuel use. Not only can local governments not ban natural gas activity, but efforts to regulate it by zoning have been struck down. And pending Substitute SB 201 would prevent local governments from limiting the use of natural gas and propane — a move meant to block local resolutions to move to 100% clean energy.
“These bills single out renewables from all other forms of energy generation in Ohio, subjecting wind and solar to additional processes and local control,” said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, of the township legislation.
Critics say the proposal, if passed, threatens to undermine clean energy job growth in the state as a time when the federal government is preparing to invest heavily in the sector.
First Solar employs roughly 1,500 people at its two plants in northwestern Ohio — more than the total number of direct jobs at both FirstEnergy Solutions plants receiving subsidies under the state’s scandal-tainted HB 6 law.
An Ohio University report released last fall found that growth of the solar energy industry in the state could support between 18,000 and 54,000 jobs during project construction over the course of several decades. That’s separate from any additional jobs that might come from new wind projects.
“The Biden administration is moving quickly to combat climate impacts by expanding renewables,” Leppla said, “and if the Ohio legislature passes one of these bills, Ohio is likely to be passed over for federal clean energy dollars that could put Ohioans to work and ensure Ohio is positioned to fight the worst impacts of climate change.”
The sponsors and co-sponsors of both bills are exclusively Republicans, who control both legislative chambers in the state — although not all Republicans support the proposals. Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, criticized the earlier version as a threat to the state’s business environment.
Another conservative, former gubernatorial candidate Travis Irvine, testified against the bill last week on behalf of the Libertarian Party of Ohio.
“Passage of SB 52 would potentially send companies that are investing in facilities — and all the jobs and economic development dollars that come with them — to neighboring states,” Irvine said. “And while I know some state legislators were fine sending Ohio ratepayers’ money to Indiana with HB 6, I would venture to say that this situation is different and we don’t want these potential businesses and jobs going elsewhere, leaving Ohio behind.”
The Ohio Senate will hold its fifth hearing on the bill at 4 p.m. Tuesday. The notice refers to the possibility of more amendments. Industry sources expect the committee could report the bill out for a full Senate vote within the next week or two.