Anti-wind bill costs Ohio schools hundreds of thousands of dollars

New setback rules killed revenue from wind farms that would have gone directly to districts.

Wind turbines. CREDIT: Pexels
Wind turbines. CREDIT: Pexels

Superintendent Ken Amstutz dreamed of propelling his rural Ohio school district into a high-tech future with nearly a million dollars in annual revenue from a single wind farm set to go online this year.

That was until the state legislature blocked wind development across Ohio, halting construction of the Long Prairie Wind Farm and leaving Amstutz’s district in financial limbo.

House Bill 483, which became law in October 2014, more than doubled the minimum distance between wind turbines and property lines. Legislators said they changed the requirement to protect property rights and improve public safety, but it had the effect of closing off much of the state to wind power.

Revenue from the Long Prairie Wind Farm in Van Wert City would have delivered Chromebooks to every student in the district, Amstutz said. It would have ensured existing programs stay in effect and allowed the school to expand its science, math, and performing arts curricula. Teachers would have gotten raises, and the district would have had the resources to support new, innovative programs.

“This money would go a long way to make sure we could continue to be an aggressive, proactive school district that meets the needs of our 21st century students,” Amstutz said. “The project is ready to roll. But until something changes, we’re at a standstill.”

In 2014, Virginia-based developer Apex Clean Energy laid out plans for the wind farm, which would have delivered $800,000 or more in yearly wind payments to local schools.

“The prohibitively extreme setbacks have made it impossible to permit wind energy facilities, blocking tremendous investment in Ohio without making the public any safer,” Apex spokesperson Dan Blondeau said in an email.

The company has invested more than $15 million in Ohio wind projects that have since stalled. “We do not have an operating facility in Ohio, but we’re prepared to invest more than $2 billion in wind energy projects in the state,” he said.

The company is not alone in its dissatisfaction with the rule. Quietly attached to a budget review, the change passed without the opportunity for comment from superintendents, school board members, or concerned citizens.

“We did not have a voice or a vote,” Amstutz said.

Students at Lincolnview Elementary display their notebook tablets with Senator Cliff Hite. CREDIT: Alexandria Mick
Students at Lincolnview Elementary display their notebook tablets with Senator Cliff Hite. CREDIT: Alexandria Mick

A short drive up the road from Van Wert City Schools, students of Lincolnview Schools saw a different ending to the same story. That district benefits from a program that allows wind companies to provide a portion of their revenue to the local community — 80 percent to schools, 20 percent to the township — instead of paying taxes. Lincolnview’s clean-energy benefactor is the Blue Creek Wind Farm, which went up before the setback rule was changed. The project, which consists of 152 turbines that can power up to 76,000 homes, contributes $400,000 annually to local schools, funding classes like pre-engineering and biomedical.

“Additional revenue allows us to think out of the box and do something new,” said Linconview Superintendent Jeff Snyder. “We’ve been able to pay for new programs, classes, and technologies as a one-time expenditure. We’ve hired a couple of additional teachers, as well as a Special Ed director and a curriculum director… That money is not leaving our area to go somewhere else. It’s staying in our district to benefit our kids and future generations of students as well.”

If the current setback restrictions were in place when Blue Creek was built, only about a dozen of its 152 turbines would have made the cut. As it stands, the district is still missing out on some $600,000 per year from other, stalled wind projects in the area.

Snyder said that although payments have been hugely valuable for his district, he recognizes not everyone feels the same way about wind power.

“I’m a big proponent of this opportunity being afforded to every district in Ohio because I’ve seen firsthand what we’ve been able to do — things that before this additional revenue stream we probably wouldn’t have even thought about,” he said. “We want to be very good to our community, and I’m very cognizant of this topic and that there are people in our communities who don’t want windmills.”

Lawmakers and lobbyists have seized on local opposition to wind power to pass policies that favor oil and natural gas — despite the fact that infrastructure-related risks, infringement on property rights, and nuisance issues used to justify the state’s aggressive resistance to wind can be common with fossil fuel extraction.

This doesn’t faze Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz (R), who says that “cheap and plentiful” natural gas doesn’t threaten homeowners because, unlike wind turbines, gas infrastructure operates underground.

“People who live in houses have something called yards,” he said, describing wind turbines as hazardous, towering objects that can “catch fire” and “throw snow and ice appreciable distances” onto residents’ property.

Seitz said that around a dozen Ohio wind projects have stalled despite being exempt from the new setback requirements.

“Why weren’t these wind farms built? They’re trying to blame their problems on a setback law, but that’s not the problem,” he said.

Others disagree. Ohio-based wind-energy lobbyist Dayna Baird Payne said that if the original blueprints for these wind farms needed to be altered, exemptions could be rescinded. Developers could not add, subtract, or relocate a wind turbine without risking losing their permit. More broadly, she said, the rule change has stifled the growth of wind power in Ohio.

“Not a single new project has been submitted to the Ohio Power Siting Board since the setback change, even from companies with their land leases under contract and their studies completed,” she said.

There is still hope for the landowners, farmers, families, and schools of northwest Ohio who have not reaped the benefits of wind power. Regulations can be overturned or updated. House Bill 190, introduced in 2015, would give setback and siting decisions to individual counties. If that bill is signed into law, schools across the state could see decades of revenue they desperately need.

Ohio state Sen. Cliff Hite (R), who voted for the bill that pulled the plug on Van Wert’s school funding, hopes to revive commercial wind development with HB 190. “I believe these projects should have the chance to thrive where people want them,” he said. “And I believe they will live to fight another day.”

For Amstutz, it’s about giving his community the chance they deserve.

“We’re watching what’s happening in Columbus, so that if the time were to come, we would be able to listen to our people, voice our opinion, and hopefully move forward.”

Emily Sanders writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.