FutureStructure

Ohio’s Mixed Results on Clean Energy

Although Ohio Gov. John Kasich has been a supporter of clean energy, the state still heavily relies of burning coal and using other fossil fuels.

by Matt Sanctis and Chris Stewart, Dayton Daily News, Ohio / December 14, 2015
Wind farm in Bowling Green, Ohio. Wikicommons

(TNS) -- While some states can tap vast quantities of dammed-up water to churn megawatt upon megawatt of clean power, Ohio’s renewable energy options are mostly limited to wind and solar power.

Though solar and wind output has grown exponentially in Ohio since the state established an alternative energy portfolio standard in 2008, just 1.5 percent of Ohio’s electricity was generated by those renewables and biomass fuels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The majority of electric power in the state is generated by burning coal, which emits a variety of toxins and is a major source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that scientists say contributes to global warming and climate change, issues debated at the just-concluded climate change talks in Paris.

While some robust work takes place in the state on wind, solar and other alternative energy projects, such as refining fuels from algae, Ohio lags about half the states in bringing renewable and clean energy projects online.

“We’re certainly not at the forefront,” said Sukh Sidhu, leader of the Sustainable Environmental Technologies group at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI). “If new technologies work out we’re not staunchly against them. But we’re not doing anything to promote them, either.”

Ohio ranks 20th in installed solar capacity, and 26th in installed wind capacity, according to industry associations. Mandates — now frozen — called for a quarter of the state’s energy to come from alternative sources by 2025, and half of that was to be from Ohio sources. The legislature repealed the in-state sourcing.

Mixed results

Wind energy, once seen as a key to drawing investment, jobs and large-scale projects to the state, has seen mixed results.

Proponents of wind generation argue that projects will provide a needed source of renewable energy while pumping revenue to local governments and schools.

But opponents, including Sam Randazzo, a Columbus attorney who specializes in energy, counters that the turbines are inefficient, expensive and in some cases a nuisance.

“You’re not going to get wind farm development in the state of Ohio, a state with relatively poor wind resources, unless customers are condemned to subsidize these wind farms for a period of 20 years, notwithstanding the fact that the wind farm developers say that they can compete on an open market,” said Randazzo, general counsel for Industrial Energy Users-Ohio.

A federal tax credit for wind expired in 2014 and state legislators passed tougher setbacks last year, requiring turbines in new projects to be at least 1,125 feet from the tip of the blade to the nearest property line, making it tougher to get a new wind farm up and spinning.

“The industry is challenged by the Ohio setback rules, in terms of ability to deploy projects,” said Andrew Gohn of the American Wind Energy Association. “The additional drag on the industry is the state’s (freeze of the) renewable portfolio standard. Both of those come into play as far as how wind can be positioned in the future to contribute to avoiding emissions.”

Of 17 wind projects in the state, only two are operational, both in Northwest Ohio. Eleven others have been approved and four have been proposed.

Everpower Renewables, for example, has spent as much as $10 million without putting a shovel in the ground to push three wind farms forward in Champaign, Logan and Hardin counties. The company continues to work to develop two phases of the Buckeye Wind Project in Champaign County, which would build 100 turbines across six townships and produce enough power to power as many as 50,000 homes annually.

Solar energy jobs

Though wind generates about four times as much electricity as solar in Ohio, solar companies employ more than twice the number of workers. As many as 5,000 Ohioans are directly employed in the sectors, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association.

One in every 78 new engineering jobs is related in some way to solar energy production, said James Menart, founder and director of Wright State University’s Renewable and Clean Energy Program. More than 20 students currently are enrolled in the program.

Solar systems now benefit from a 30-percent federal tax credit applied to the overall cost of a project, making the credit, “an important piece of the puzzle,” said Ray Davis, president of OGW Energy Resources.

“Without these — the tax equity associated with a renewable energy project — it would make currently feasible projects not as economically viable in many areas of the Midwest where there’s a low grid cost per kWh,” said Davis, whose Tipp City company works primarily as a sub-contractor conducting feasibility studies, planning and commissioning of solar installations.

At the end of 2016, though, the solar investment tax credit is set to drop to 10 percent for commercial projects and will be eliminated completely for residential installations. Some in the industry are calling for the tax credit to be extended.

The renewables market in Ohio “has grown in spite of what the state is doing,” said Menart, who believes federal tax credits should be extended “for a number of more years to keep the momentum going.”

Neil Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Solar Power & Light in Miamisburg, said he’s not going to panic if the tax credit isn’t extended. He said the break-even point is near as the upfront costs for solar have dropped significantly in recent years.

“In most technologies, in most industries, when you are trying to start a new industry, you need subsidies, you need some help to get industry started, to get jobs created,” Chaudhry said. “We think solar has had those for five years now and I think solar will do well without those subsidies or reduced subsidies.”

He said it is “disappointing” to live in a state where legislators took “a step backward” by putting a freeze on the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Chaudhry said green technologies help people and companies keep more green in their pockets by reducing energy costs. Renewable and clean energy advances also spur the economy with new industries and jobs, he said.

“Climate is certainly a big part of it, but even if you don’t believe in climate change, to us solar is really about technology and saving money,” Chaudhry said. “A lot of people have turned this into a political issue and made a big deal about this. For us, we’re engineers. We look at numbers.”

Students in Wright State’s renewable energy program, launched in 2009, have worked on a number of projects and studies examining energy efficiency, geothermal systems, and how to increase the efficiency of photo voltaic cells using concentrating lenses.

Brian Calderon of Huber Heights is one of Menart’s students in a group testing a senior project — a solar-thermal system designed for potentially heating space and the water at the K12 Gallery-TEJAS building in downtown Dayton.

Calderon, 21, said he was introduced to renewable technologies in middle school and is building toward a career in manufacturing products that can help developing countries meet energy needs without adding more emissions to the atmosphere.

“I like the design aspect. I like the research aspect of it,” he said. “A lot of young people are really concerned about the environment.”

Businesses invest

Battery storage — the way to hang on to renewable energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun shining — is the “holy grail,” according to Menart. Energy storage is being studied at both Wright State and the University of Dayton.

Ten to 15 percent of all UD students are familiarized with renewable energy through coursework or other programs, including those through the Hanley Sustainability Institute, Sidhu said. That number climbs to a quarter or more of all students enrolled in engineering, he said.

Researchers at UDRI have developed a system that uses carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas that could be captured from coal plant stacks — to grow algae. The algae crude can later be refined into fuels like kerosene, aviation fuel and gasoline.

“You’re not extracting it; you’re not reintroducing anything new. You’re basically recycling it,” Sidhu said.

Some of the country’s largest businesses are already factoring renewable energy into their bottom lines. Amazon, the massive online retailer, announced last month that it will partner with EDP Renewables and build a 100-megawatt wind farm in Paulding County called the Amazon Wind Farm U.S. Central.

The 320,000-megawatt farm would generate enough energy to power more than 29,000 homes a year, but would be used to generate energy for the company’s data centers, including three that will be built in central Ohio.

Honda, a major regional employer, has invested in wind energy at its plant in Russells Point, although that project involves only two wind turbines. The two turbines are expected to supply about 10 percent of the facility’s energy.

Earlier this month, the White House announced that Honda is one of 154 companies supporting the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Honda previously announced a goal of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2050 compared to its 2000 baseline, and pledged to reduce emissions in its automobiles, motorcycles and power equipment by 30 percent by 2020.

“Reducing emissions is at the forefront of everything we’re doing, at least from reducing our environmental footprint,” said Eric Mauk, a Honda spokesman. “We are looking at use of renewable energy on a number of different platforms throughout the entire company.”

©2015 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.