Future unclear for solar project

MARIETTA – The future of what was to be the largest solar field east of the Rocky Mountains is uncertain after the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio rejected a plan to finance the Noble County project.

Last week, the commission voted 3-1 against American Electric Power’s plan to recover a portion of its costs in the venture through a surcharge on ratepayers. In its decision, the commission said the company and its own staff failed to show the Turning Point Solar project would benefit ratepayers or was needed to allow AEP Ohio to meet state requirements for using alternative energy sources.

While AEP and the developers of Turning Point have a month to appeal the decision, for the time being, the project in its original form is “done,” said Dave Celona, spokesman for Turning Point.

“There’s no way that could happen given the commission’s decision,” he said.

Turning Point, a joint venture of New Harvest Ventures of Columbus and Chicago and California-based Agile Energy, was announced in October 2010 by then-Gov. Ted Strickland. It was expected to create 300 construction jobs in the area and another 300 for companies that manufacture parts for the array.

AEP Ohio was providing the 850 acres of reclaimed mine land in Noble County, near The Wilds, on which the approximately 250,000-panel solar array was to be built. The company contributed $20 million of equity and was going to finance the remaining $130 million to $160 million of the project in part through an assessment of about 20 cents a month on the typical residential customer.

The PUCO ruling did not close the door on the project, just that funding approach.

“Our decision is not intended to diminish the merits of the Turning Point project,” says the PUCO opinion and order, issued Jan. 9. “(The finding) does not preclude AEP Ohio from pursuing the project through other appropriate means.”

Celona said that likely would involve more entities than AEP agreeing to buy the electricity produced by Turning Point.

“We think this project’s too good to fail,” Celona said. “We’re hopeful that … we can identify over the next 60 to 90 days (ways) to make this project a reality.”

There’s no hard and fast timeline to revamp the project, but Celona said there isn’t an unlimited amount of time either, noting between $2 million and $3 million has already been spent.

“At some point, the developers have to pull the plug,” he said.

Scott Braden, president of the Community Improvement Corporation of Noble County, hopes the ruling is appealed.

“We feel the project remains valid for everyone locally and for the entire state by helping to diversify the state’s energy mix, providing jobs in the manufacturing of solar panels in northeast Ohio, providing construction jobs in an economically depressed area of this state,” he said in an email to The Marietta Times.

Terri Flora, director of communications for AEP Ohio, said the company has not decided on a course of action yet.

AEP argued before the PUCO that Turning Point was needed to build up capacity for generating solar power to meet state mandates. Currently, 0.06 percent of electricity sold by the company must come from solar resources. By 2024, that requirement grows to 0.5 percent.

The PUCO order said testimony from AEP Ohio and the commission staff failed to show the company couldn’t meet those requirements without Turning Point. In fact, a 20-year purchase power agreement with a solar facility in Wyandot should satisfy the company’s needs for some time.

But Flora said that arrangement won’t suffice as the required amount of power increases.

“It’s not just you build one and then you’re covered,” she said.

Center Township resident Dave Everly, 64, said he’s been following the project since it was announced and felt the PUCO’s decision was wrong. He cited not only the state alternative energy requirements, but also Noble County’s need for jobs.

“We’re dying fast,” he said. “I’d like for the kids to be able to stay here if they wanted to.”

Celona did not have an estimate on how many permanent jobs Turning Point would create, but he said there would be an estimated 300 construction jobs.

Even the temporary construction jobs would have been a boost, Everly said.

“Construction worker comes into this area, or if he’s from this area, he spends his money in this area,” he said.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said the long-term job impact of Turning Point in Noble County was “not huge.” He said he’s been concerned about the project for a while, questioning the reliability, efficiency and cost of solar power.

“I’ve always kind of cautioned that solar projects have come and gone,” Thompson said.

Celona said comparing solar to traditional electricity prices is not an apples-to-apples proposition.

“Turning Point Solar will be as competitive as any other source of solar energy,” he said.

Thompson said the alternative energy mandates do present an obstacle for power companies, and they should perhaps be revisited. That legislation was passed in 2009, before the recent boom in shale oil and natural gas, which Thompson said could have a positive impact on energy prices. Using natural gas to power vehicles and in other ways now seems more viable, he said.

The increased cost of solar, meanwhile, must be passed on to customers or absorbed by the company, Thompson said.

“Ohio is trying to be business-friendly. This is going in the opposite direction,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ohio Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said in a news release Tuesday that the PUCO’s decision is economically harmful.

“This decision is a major setback for our skilled workforce and our local economy,” he said. “Our top priority in Columbus should be making policy decisions that promote job growth, not stifle it.”