The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
The Ohio Senate passed legislation Wednesday granting new powers to county commissions to scuttle wind and solar development projects.
Senate Bill 52 would require the green energy developers — before filing a separate application with the state Power Siting Board that currently exists in law — to hold a public hearing with advance notice to local officials.
County commissions could then pass resolutions to ban wind or solar projects outright or limit them to certain “energy development districts” in the county.
The bill passed on a 20-13 vote, with five Republicans joining all eight members of the Democratic caucus in opposition.
A fellowship of unlikely allies opposed the bill, including the green energy industry and its advocates, utility companies like American Electric Power, oil drillers like BP, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Farm Bureau, and the Ohio Manufacturing Association.
The bill’s critics argued the Ohio Power Siting Board already imposes a rigorous application process that spans pricey submissions, environmental reviews, public hearings, staff investigations and a decision from seven voting board members (comprised mostly of the governor’s cabinet heads).
SB 52, they said, is simply another layer of bureaucracy that doesn’t apply to coal or natural gas. This is likely to chill interest in potential development.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, said fossil fuels like natural gas and coal are more necessary for the reliability of the grid than wind and solar. He said the legislation is about giving the localities a voice.
He said criticisms regarding parity between renewables and fossil fuel energy sources is an apples-and-oranges comparison.
“I think when you’re looking at, for example, a natural gas plant: a natural gas plant is going to be confined within one area, a natural gas plant is not going to affect nearly as many acres in most places as these solar and wind projects are. They’re not as transformative, and they’re not being put primarily in residential areas in rural parts of the state,” he said.
Renewable energy advocates said the bill would scare off interest from developers on building green energy in Ohio.
Randi Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said the bill adds a layer of red tape unique to renewable energy that runs through a local political body that lacks the expertise of the OPSB.
“We’re all using energy and electricity, and it’s really urgent in the fight against climate change that we transition as quickly as possible toward clean energy sources,” she said. “This bill has the potential to block our ability to do that.”
Neil Waggoner, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club, said SB 52 is a bad bill by itself for creating new regulatory hurdles that only apply to wind and solar and are likely to whittle down interest from potential developers.
However, he said the bigger picture includes a legislature moving on several pieces of legislation that favor fossil fuels. He cited one bill, passed by the House and under Senate review, to prevent local governments from banning or limiting natural gas development; or another that allows gas drillers to sell their fracking waste for de-icing or portable restroom use.
That’s not to mention the ongoing, Ohio ratepayer-funded bailout of two coal plants in Ohio and Indiana to the tune of an estimated $700 million over ten years.
“This bill today is bad, but it’s part of this overall agenda taking place that supports, helps, bails out gas, coal, fossil fuels, and makes it harder for renewable energy to compete and be developed,” he said.
Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, defended the bill in a press conference with reporters after the vote. He said localities typically wield many different forms of control over new buildings and development within their borders.
While he acknowledged SB 52 creates unique regulations for renewables as opposed to non-renewables, he said wind and solar power is not a significant enough piece of Ohio’s energy mix to warrant superseding local control.
“These [renewable generators] produce relatively low energy, and the energy that they do produce is expensive,” he said. “So I don’t think they’re deserving of those exemptions.”
Besides allowing a county commission to strike down proposals, the bill also gives two new votes representing local government on the Power Siting Board for that specific project’s approval vote.
Along with the Democrats, the following Republicans voted against passage: Niraj Antani, Matt Dolan, Frank Hoagland, Stephanie Kunze and Bob Peterson.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for review.