The California-based company (Candela Renewables) that is planning a large solar field east of Mark Center is well aware of a pending state bill that could restrict future solar fields and windfarms.
Senate Bill 52 (introduced by Sens. Rob McColley of Napoleon and Bill Reineke of Tiffin) as well as House Bill 118 (introduced by State Reps. Craig Riedel of Defiance and Dick Stein of Norwalk) would allow township trustees to determine where solar and windfarms could be established as a sort of zoning measure. Township residents would be given an opportunity to referendum trustees’ decision at the ballot box, according to Riedel.
The legislation has had several hearings in each chamber and figures to come up for a vote in the coming weeks.
“It’s something that we’re tracking,” said Jenny Nicola of New York, Candela’s project developer. “It does give us some concern. It would just give us a lot of uncertainty in the process.”
She said passage of such legislation would increase the company’s risk as it works through a solar project in Ohio.
This may or may not affect the Mark Center project, depending upon if and when the legislation passes, which does not seem to be a foregone conclusion. Riedel doesn’t expect Democrats to support it and some House Republicans may not be completely on board although he believes the votes are available in the Senate.
When HB 118 was introduced earlier this year, Riedel commented that “the beauty of this bill is that it gives local control to township residents for them to decide whether wind or solar development is welcome to move forward or stopped where it is not welcome.”
While Candela’s Jim Woodruff of California acknowledges that SB 52 “is about local control and creating that local voice,” he believes this is available already. He notes that the Ohio Power Siting Board — which is being asked to approve Candela’s plans and will hold an online public hearing Tuesday (see related story concerning Defiance County commissioners’ Thursday session) — is one example.
“At least our experience in dealing with county officials and the siting board is that that voice exists now,” he said. “I mean there’s clearly a process through which people can voice concerns and have them heard by the siting board, by elected officials in the county.”
However, whereas SB 52 would provide a referendum option for voters, the siting board does not provide this choice. County commissioners could entertain discussion as well, but could not necessarily be forced to reject a solar field proposal.
If SB 52 goes through, Woodruff believes this would have a “very significant chilling effect for the state, to the extent that the state wants to embrace this economic development and engine for that, SB 52 is a problem.”
Nicolas touched on this issue, noting that a rejection would impact counties negatively. They stand to receive tax revenue through the development of solar fields, and in Defiance County’s case discussed an economic development agreement in executive session Thursday with the company.
However, funding for solar fields and windfarms can be complicated and is reliant on a level of government subsidies through the state and/or federal government. Most rely at least in part on tax credits, for example.
“Typically, solar projects are financed with a combination of equity and debt financing,” said Candela’s Bill Chilson of California, director of real estate and permitting. “There’s really two parts. The development phase: where there’s high risk and so the returns have to be commensurate to get people to develop a project. And once a project is developed — and that would mean once it starts construction — the project’s what we like to call de-risk, at which time you tend to get institutional investors who are interested in acquiring the project through an equity position or a debt position.”
Chilson concedes that the tax credit component is very important to solar development, but notes that a drop in the price of solar panels has helped projects become cheaper.
So how many solar fields are possible in Defiance County?
A second is under consideration near Sherwood by a different firm — 7X Energy based in Texas, but finding suitable locations can be problematic. An electrical substation to tie the energy produced by a solar field must be nearby, as is the case with the Mark Center location.
“... you need a substation or you need a line that has capacity on it to take the output, and so that’s a limiting factor,” explained Chilson. “So, the bottom line is you just can’t get a piece of land and start building a solar project. You have to have interconnections. Interconnections, quite frankly, are hard to come by so that probably limits the number of given projects you can have in a given county.”
While Candela is not looking at other Defiance County sites, it is interested in other locations throughout Ohio, and is working on two others — one in Pickaway County south of Columbus and another in Franklin and Madison counties, just west of Columbus.
“We have a long-term interest in Ohio,” said Chilson.
Some concern has been raised by local residents to the Mark Center proposal in recent days, according to the county’s economic development director, Erika Willitzer. Three comments were voiced this week, she indicated Thursday.
She told county commissioners that one person was opposed because he does not want to look at all the solar panels that will be installed. Nicolas said a buffer of “at least 300 feet” is planned.
Despite the recent concerns, Woodruff noted that “we’ve had a very positive reception to this project.”
Company officials have discussed the matter several times with county officials who have not expressed opposition.
Nicolas sites “receptiveness by county commissioners and the public” as one factor in the company’s search for appropriate sites.
“That’s something that is really important,” she said. “We’re not just trying to put panels down where people don’t want them. We’re trying to develop solar responsibly.”