PUCO rules on solar farms

Calling it “a little complex” but far from “pulling the plug” on the two southern Highland County solar panel farm projects, Neil Waggoner, campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio, told The Times-Gazette that the Ohio Public Utilities Commission ordered a change Thursday in how construction would be financed.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) rejected part of AEP Ohio’s plan to develop the 350-megawatt Hecate and the 150-megawatt Willowbrook solar panel farms.

He emphasized that both projects, which have already received Ohio Power Sitting Board approval, are still on track for construction, but that Thursday’s ruling had to do with AEP’s desire to “rate base” financing of construction.

“The developers of the Willowbrook and Hecate projects got clearance to actually build the project,” Waggoner said. “But now they will need to get their own financing to have the dollars to actually build them.”

He said AEP’s business model was to press forward with construction and supply pollution-free electrical power to its customers, but the PUCO ordered that a charge could not appear on consumers’ statements to pay for building the farms before they go on line.

“The Public Utility Commission today denied AEP what is called ‘rate recovery’ for building those projects,” Waggoner said. “They basically told AEP that you can’t charge your customers to build them, and what that means moving forward is the developers can still build Willowbrook and Hecate if they line up financing.”

He added that though the recently enacted House Bill 6 will place an 85-cent per month charge on electrical consumers starting on Jan. 1, 2021, Thursday’s PUCO decision was similar in the description of being a charge, but very different as to what the end result would be.

“In the case of the coal plants and the Lake Erie nuclear power plants that are getting a bailout, those were bought and paid for over a generation ago,” he said. “The coal plants were built in the 1950s and the nuclear plants in the late 1970s and now they’re losing money in the market so that’s where that charge on House Bill 6 came from.”

Waggoner said in the case of building new power generation such as the twin solar power facilities awaiting construction in southern Highland County, the argument was that customers shouldn’t have to pay up front for construction.

The 350-megawatt Hecate facility will occupy nearly 2,000 acres of land between Buford and north of Mowrystown and has the potential to generate more solar megawatts than have been developed in the entire history of the state of Ohio. It would be the largest solar panel farm east of the Mississippi River, reports said.

Highland County’s other solar farm is Open Road Renewables’ Willowbrook 150-megawatt project, which will occupy about the same amount of acreage, paralleling U.S. Route 62 from the Old Y Restaurant to just north of Hansen Aggregates’ Eagle Stone Quarry in northern Brown County.

“Ohio is desperately in need of a forward-thinking energy policy that prioritizes investment in clean energy, efficiency, and the communities most impacted by the transition away from dirty energy,” Waggoner said.

According to AEP’s filing, the construction of the Appalachian solar projects would create approximately 3,900 temporary jobs and at least 113 permanent jobs.

He said those are jobs and new opportunities for industry in an area of Ohio in need of new future-focused investments.

Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.

Says AEP can’t charge to build Highland Co. facilities

By Tim Colliver