May 28, 2018

Ohio Lawmakers Fine-Tune Renewable Energy Mandates

Ohio utilities would still have to find more of their power from renewable sources like solar and wind but not as much as required by current law under a bill that could soon see a Senate vote.

A revised version of House Bill 114 rolled out last week would get rid of the House-passed concept of replacing the mandates with voluntary goals carrying no penalties for failure.

The bill also seeks to resolve a four-year feud over the siting of wind farms.

“The governor vetoed the concept [of killing the renewable-energy mandates] in the past,” said Sen. Bill Beagle (R., Tipp City), who offered the compromise amendment adopted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Is there a way where we might be able to work with the interested parties to come up with something that the governor and the legislature could live with?” he asked. “Is there a spot where the mandates are reduced enough that the governor wouldn’t veto it?”

With overwhelming bipartisan support, Ohio lawmakers in 2008 mandated that FirstEnergy, American Electric Power, and other utilities find 12.5 percent of their power from wind, solar, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources by 2025.

But by 2014 lawmakers’ resolve had weakened amid arguments by the utilities that the effort was about to start affecting customers’ bills. They passed a law to take a two-year timeout, freezing in place the annual incremental benchmarks that the utilities had to meet on their way to 12.5 percent.

Gov. John Kasich went along with the two-year freeze, but he vetoed a follow-up measure in 2016 to extend that freeze indefinitely. The march toward 12.5 percent resumed, but is now two years behind schedule.

While preserving the idea of requiring measurable progress on purchasing renewable power, Mr. Beagle’s amendment sets the new final mandate at 8.5 percent by 2022 instead of 12.5 percent by 2027. In addition, the new mandated carve-out for solar power within that broader renewable mandate would be reduced to 0.34 percent from 0.5 percent under current law.

The revised bill would also mandate that the utilities reduce electricity use by 17.2 percent, down from 22.2 percent, by 2027.

House Bill 114, as sponsored by Rep. Lou Blessing III (R., Cincinnati) and passed by the House, did not talk about siting wind turbines. But it’s been a contentious issue since 2014 when lawmakers enacted new property setback restrictions that the wind industry contends have all but brought wind farm investment to a standstill.

“We need to rethink that and come up with something — not what the old setbacks were but something that would permit an industry to succeed,” Mr. Beagle said.

The Senate could vote on a revised bill before it recesses for the summer within the next two to three weeks.

Current law prohibits the placement of a wind turbine if the tip of its closest extended blade would come within 1,125 feet of a property line. The amendment would change that to 1,125 feet from the nearest habitable residence for wind farms  generating at least five megawatts of power.

The amendment also provides for a setback from the nearest property line of 1.2 times the tower’s height, up from 1.1. This further ensures that if the tower were to fall, it would not encroach on a neighbor’s property.

Some wind farms have faced opposition from owners of neighboring rural properties who object to the noise, light reflection, and shadows from the turbines. The towers’ placement within closer proximity can reduce the current and future use and value of their land without compensation, they’ve argued.

Sen. Robert McColley (R., Napoleon) voted for House Bill 114 and its repeal of the green power mandate while still in the House last year. He said he still agrees the free market works better than government intervention.

But he could vote for the new version if the wind farm changes include his proposal giving counties and townships greater authority in considering wind farm projects and giving voters the opportunity to second guess those decisions at the ballot box.

Representing a district where wind farm development and property rights have clashed, he said he’d like to see a compromise. He said he recognizes the current rules have stymied wind farm development.

“I would never dispute that school districts that have had wind farms constructed have seen enormous benefits financially from the money that comes with it,” he said. “However, we need to absolutely make sure that we’re not trampling over landowners’ property rights solely to see financial gains for school districts.”

The Ohio Environmental Council likes the wind farm setback language but isn’t pleased with the reduced renewable and energy efficiency mandates compared to current law.

“We are evaluating this bill, looking at the pluses and the minuses,” said Trish Demeter, the council’s vice president of energy policy. “We’re evaluating the policy through the lens of whether it builds a net benefit for the environment. We haven’t taken a position yet.”

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