The same way it helps farmers like Glenn McClure grow traditional crops more abundantly and sustainably, Ohio State University Extension is now putting its economic and community development expertise to work in the emerging field of renewable energy -- helping communities throughout Ohio capitalize on a growing number of alternative energy projects that bring much-needed investment and jobs to the state.
In only a few years, Van Wert and Paulding counties, near the Indiana border, have become the wind energy mecca of Ohio. In this flat, windswept farming region, the state's first utility-scale wind energy-generation projects -- Iberdrola Renewables' Blue Creek Wind Farm and Horizon Wind Energy's Timber Road II Wind Farm -- have recently been completed, dotting the landscape with 207 large turbines that can produce more than 450 MW of electricity. That's enough renewable energy to power 107,000 Ohio homes.
In Van Wert County, OSU Extension economic development educator Nancy Bowen has been a strategic partner, working with both elected officials and Iberdrola Renewables representatives to facilitate development of the 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm project -- the largest of its kind in Ohio.
"The research, expertise and resources available through OSU Extension have been very advantageous to us, especially in a sector so new as wind energy," says Van Wert County Commissioner Clair Dudgeon. "Nancy's office was one of the first contacts with the developers, helping with things such as finding office space and temporary accommodations in town, how they could go about leasing land, what would be the best way to contact farmers, and also how we could get people together to show them what we were looking at with development of our systems for renewable energy."
Dan Litchfield, project developer for the Blue Creek Wind Farm, started working with Bowen in 2009. "She was really helpful for us to make connections locally, giving us some local credibility, and to educate community members and decision makers about the benefits to them from this project, and now we are proving it," he says.
Bowen has also advocated on behalf of alternative energy legislation that has made Ohio an attractive location for wind energy developers to invest.
"Nancy came with me to the Statehouse to testify on behalf of State Bill 232, whose approval allowed us to create an alternative energy zone in the county and establish a fixed, known tax rate for the wind energy company," Dudgeon says. "Without it, I don't think we could have enticed these energy folks."
Litchfield agrees. He said that while northwest Ohio meets all the requirements for wind energy generation -- compatible land use, interested landowners, good wind resource and electrical transmission capacity -- it was the state's favorable alternative energy legislation that helped Van Wert County land the Blue Creek project. In addition to SB 232, enacted in 2010, the Ohio legislature had previously passed, in 2008, the landmark Senate Bill 221, which requires 12.5 percent of the state's electricity demand to come from renewable sources by 2025.
"Having a stable, long-term policy is really important for a company like us that's considering where to invest, for example, $600 million in this project here," says Litchfield, an Ohio native who grew up some 55 miles south of Van Wert. "In 2008, when this project was still very loosely defined, it was originally conceived of being in Indiana. But I made the decision to move it into Ohio, and one of the reasons was (the state's) advanced energy portfolio standard. We knew there would be a market for wind energy that we could compete for.
"Senate Bill 232 has also been very important. Before that, the property tax rate was uncertain but very high, higher than all the other neighboring states. That legislation lowered the rate, allowed us to go forward, and created this enormous new source of local revenue that wouldn't have been possible without it."
According to project developers, the Blue Creek and Timber Road II wind farms created 495 construction jobs and will generate 30 permanent new jobs. The projects will also pay $2.6 million annually to property owners for leasing their land, and will generate $3.6 million a year in local taxes.
"Under SB 232's property tax rates, we'll pay $2.7 million a year in local property taxes," Litchfield said. "We'll become the largest single taxpayer in Van Wert County, equal to the top 14 taxpayers combined. During the construction phase, we spent about $25 million locally with hotels, restaurants and local contractors who did a lot of the work."
McClure is one of the 250 landowners, most of them farmers, who leased portions of their land to Iberdrola Renewables for the Blue Creek Wind Farm --which are spread out over 27,000 acres, 75 percent in Van Wert County and the rest in Paulding County. The Timber Road II Wind Farm's 55 turbines, meanwhile, are all located in Paulding County, near the town of Payne.
"You can't miss them, that's for sure," says McClure of the 328-foot-tall towers, each crowned with three 145-foot-long blades, which now stand on his farm and neighboring properties. "To this farming community right here, it's meant a lot because of the income that would be coming off of them in the future. I see this as a good thing for the community and the neighborhood. Wind energy is just another form of income for us, it's no different than renting the ground to somebody else to farm it."
According to Litchfield, local landowners will receive about $2 million every year in lease payments. He said wind energy projects are particularly well suited to open farmland regions like northwest Ohio.
"It's a good fit with agriculture because our wind turbines, including gravel access roads, occupy on average less than three-fourths of an acre each, so it really adds to farm incomes without taking away from their main use of the land," he said. "We like to think of wind as a new crop, especially in the winter when nothing is growing in the fields, but the wind is howling above; it's a winter crop the farmers can harvest. For them it's guaranteed revenue and, on a per-acre basis, it's a lot more than they can get from their traditional farming."
Ohio's alternative energy-friendly legislation and the success of the first two utility-scale wind farms have spurred plans for further investments in northwest Ohio by both Horizon and Iberdrola Renewables, which are among the largest operators of wind power in the U.S.
The second phase of Horizon's Timber Road II Wind Farm will consist of 28 turbines, generating 50 MW. Other projects planned by this company in the region include Timber Road I (48.6 MW) and Timber Road III (up to 200 MW).
Meanwhile, Iberdrola Renewables has other projects in development nearby, including Dog Creek Wind Farm, which according to Litchfield could be built in the next three to five years and will feature 150 turbines; and Prairie Creek Wind Farm, which could consist of 100 turbines. Other projects are being considered in Putnam County as well.
"Northwestern Ohio is the windiest part of the state, it's got the transmission capacity, and as long as policies remain intact this could be a tremendous growth industry for this part of the state," Litchfield points out.
Bowen says OSU Extension will continue to assist communities seeking to capitalize on the green energy boom. She and other educators have come together to create educational materials regarding renewable energy development and offer training sessions to those interested in exploring this new sector."Our goal is really to try to educate people about renewable energy, what the impact both positive and potentially negative could be," Bowen says. "Extension brings university-based research to projects to determine cost-benefit to the community. It also brings a neutral stance to issues; we are apolitical in that way."