The Ohio Power Siting Board on Thursday authorized Hecate Highland Energy, LLC to proceed with plans to construct its 300-megawatt solar-powered electric generating facility in southern Highland County north of and between Mowrystown and Buford.
With the announcement, Hecate Energy said it plans to commence construction in the third quarter of this year with hopes of formally commissioning the facility during the first quarter of 2021.
Becca Pollard, Ohio associate organizing representative of the Sierra Club/Beyond Coal, said that her organization was happy to hear of the approval, and was hopeful that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio would approve American Electric Power’s proposal to build both the Willowbrook and Hecate facilities.
“It’s time for Ohio to get on track with building clean renewable energy projects,” she said. “These will bring much needed jobs and revenue to rural communities and provide future generations with energy sources that don’t pollute our air and water”
The announcement comes on the heels of similar approval given by the OPSB on April 4 to Open Road Renewables for its Willowbrook Solar Farm.
Pending a “finding of need” ruling from the PUCO, the 150-megawatt Willowbrook installation will occupy approximately 1,500 acres in southern Highland County and the northeastern corner of Brown County, following U.S. 62 northward and ending at the Old Y Restaurant.
A finding of need, according to Dr. Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Jobs Network, is a consideration of everything from economic development, opportunities provided by the project and potential carbon emissions of the facility, and that at this point in both projects, officials at the PUCO will look at need in a broader scope.
While delighted with Thursday’s Hecate approval, Blumer expressed cautious optimism as Hecate and Willowbrook continue to move through the final steps of the approval process.
“There is a multi-step approval process going on here, and the OPSB approval is to actually build the facility,” he told The Times-Gazette. “This is required for any project, and with solar, it’s required for anything over 50 megawatts.”
He said that while the OPSB, in its approval, has seen a net benefit to building the solar farms, and AEP is in the approval phase with the PUCO in what he called “a complicated process that can be vague at times.”
Further complicating things was the recent introduction of Ohio House Bill 6, which he described as a different approach to the energy markets.
State representative Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro) co-sponsored the bill that he said “looks at Ohio’s energy future by investing in clean energy,” but opponents of the legislation in a news release described it as an energy bill “disguised as a nuclear plant bailout” for two near-bankrupt nuclear power plants on the shores of Lake Erie.
According to a statement from Wilkin’s office in Columbus, he and fellow representative Jamie Callender (R-Concord Township) introduced House Bill 6 on April 12 creating the Ohio Clean Air Program, with the intention of offering an alternative way of encouraging cleaner energy production in Ohio.
Blumer added that Sam Randazzo, who was appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine as chair of the PUCO earlier this year, took his seat April 11 after a full vote by the senate.
“This is quite significant for the two solar projects as the previous chairman was a strong supporter of them, particularly when it came to the jobs and economic developments aspect,” he said. “It’s not clear where Randazzo stands on the issue.”
He said that while discussions were going on regarding the Hecate and Willowbrook projects, a new governor was elected, which brought in Randazzo and a pair of new PUCO commissioners that may or may not share the opinions of the previous administration concerning going forward with solar power.
According to a news release from the Ohio Solar Jobs Network, both the Willowbrook and Hecate installations will be some of the first projects to be decided upon under Randazzo’s PUCO leadership, which it described as a concern since he has come under fire following his appointment to previous positions where he openly opposed clean energy programs in Ohio.
Blumer said that while construction plans have been approved, the projects are not in a “go-ahead” mode yet, pending approval of the economics which will include a cost recovery plan.
He said that AEP is basically an energy transmission utility, and for the solar farms to proceed from concept to reality, a determination of need has to be met, which he described as “power and price.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.