Wind energy rise above western Ohio

The 411-ton wind turbines reach to the skies to catch the best winds high above the soybean and cornfields that dominate the flatlands of western Ohio.

They are taller than anything in Northwest Ohio: five times taller than the biggest farm silos in Van Wert and Paulding counties and taller than any buildings 80 miles away in Toledo.

The towers rise 328 feet from the bases to the hubs where three blades, each 148 feet long, attach. With blades upright, the wind turbines’ height reaches 476 feet. That’s another 14 stories higher than Akron’s tallest building, the 330-foot FirstMerit Tower.

Welcome to Van Wert County, which is becoming the Wind Power Capital of Ohio. In all, 210 wind turbines are dotting the rural landscape along U.S. 30 near the city of Van Wert, and at least 550 more are planned here and in surrounding counties.

Each one costs about $2 million and can supply enough energy to power 500 typical Ohio homes.

Before the recent construction, the only utility-scale wind turbines were the four near Bowling Green.

Customers of Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. and Columbus-based American Electric Power will be among the beneficiaries of what’s happening around Van Wert.

Now, you can stand in some townships and see ghostly white wind turbines stretching to the horizon in all directions. It is a surreal and futuristic sight, yet it is becoming more real by the day.

Giant cranes are lifting parts into place, completing as many as two a day, and some have started to spin.

Winds of progress

The giant wind turbines are everywhere, rising about a half mile apart in some areas. One township is getting 76 wind turbines.

Van Wert and Paulding counties lie within a southwest-to-northeast wind corridor, and that’s why wind farm developers are so interested in the area, Van Wert County Commissioner Clair Dudgeon said.

At the moment the key players here are Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. unit of a Spanish utility, and Horizon Wind Energy, controlled by a Portuguese energy company. But others are interested in the Van Wert area, including BP Wind Energy.

"Ohio has become one of the best places in the country to make investments in wind power," Horizon spokeswoman Erin Bowser said.

Ohio has approved plans for 571 wind turbines that will produce 1,051 megawatts and pending are 419 more turbines capable of generating 784 megawatts, said spokesman Matt Butler of the Ohio Power Siting Board.

In addition to Van Wert and Paulding counties, wind farm developers have plans for wind turbines in Ashtabula, Hardin, Champaign, Richland, Crawford, Logan, Putnam and Seneca counties. There are also proposals for wind turbines in Lake Erie near Cleveland.

The capacity of Ohio’s approved and pending wind turbines — about 1,835 megawatts — cannot match the output of FirstEnergy’s huge coal-fired Sammis plant in eastern Ohio, which can produce 2,233 megawatts of electricity.

The Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo is about half that at 905 megawatts.

Nationally, wind power produces 42,432 megawatts of power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The top three states are Texas with nearly 25 percent of the total, and Iowa and California.

Wind energy is still more expensive than power derived from coal or nuclear, but interest is growing and the business is becoming more competitive. There are federal tax credits available and state laws — including in Ohio — that mandate the development of renewable energy, including wind.

Towering project

Iberdrola’s $600 million Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties is the largest wind farm project in the state and the first to begin construction.

Developer Dan Litchfield said the wind turbines are expected to begin producing energy this fall and the whole project should be running by early next year.

Getting Blue Creek built is "mainly a big exercise in logistics to get the parts and materials to the right place at the right time," Litchfield said.

Each wind turbine has about 8,000 parts, but arrive in pre-assembled units by truck and rail. The tower alone weighs 285 tons and arrives in five pieces. About 300 workers are involved in the construction.

Crane rental is expensive, so avoiding down time is a key part of the construction strategy, Litchfield said.

Construction of Blue Creek began last fall and then was halted for the winter. That made the project eligible for reimbursement grants of up to 30 percent of capital costs through the federal stimulus program. The work resumed last spring.

Iberdrola started measuring the winds at various heights in the Van Wert area more than five years ago, said Paul Copleman, the company’s communications manager.

The winds at 100 meters, or 328 feet, were determined to be about 14 miles per hour and very consistent, Litchfield said. That’s acceptable, but not as strong as other places such as Iowa, he said.

The wind turbines begin generating electricity when the winds hit 8 or 9 miles per hour. Electricity production increases up to 28 miles per hour, but higher winds do not produce more power, he said.

Blue Creek is expected to be productive 30 to 40 percent of the time, although the exact figure is proprietary, Copleman said. Litchfield added that the best conditions will be in winter, when the winds are strongest and the air is denser.

But winds were not the only factor in building in western Ohio.

Hooking the wind turbines into the electric grid was made easier because AEP had excess capacity in the Van Wert area, Litchfield said. That meant less electric infrastructure costs for Iberdrola, he said.

FirstEnergy’s interest

FirstEnergy Solutions, a unit of the Akron utility, last February signed a 20-year agreement for one-third of the electricity from Blue Creek, or about 100 megawatts, starting in October 2012. Copleman said his company continues to negotiate the sale of the remaining 204 megawatts.

FirstEnergy’s purchase helps meet a requirement in Ohio law that utilities obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, with half of that produced in Ohio.

At the urging of former Gov. Ted Strickland, the state also approved tax breaks in 2010 that encouraged the shift from traditional energy to renewable sources. Those changes were a significant factor in Iberdrola moving forward, Copleman said.

Gary Leidich, executive vice president and president of FirstEnergy Generation, said that with the Blue Creek agreement, FirstEnergy has 476 megawatts of wind power and 451 megawatts of pumped-storage hydroelectric power.

The agreement marks FirstEnergy’s second contract with Iberdrola. In 2008, FirstEnergy signed an agreement to buy electricity from Iberdrola’s Casselman Wind Farm in Pennsylvania’s Somerset County. The 23 wind turbines can produce 34.5 megawatts. The utility also gets wind power from four other sites in Pennsylvania and one in Illinois.

AEP has signed an agreement to buy 55 megawatts of electricity from Horizon’s Paulding County wind farm. It previously signed a contract for 100 megawatts of wind power from Indiana for use in Ohio.

Local impact

Blue Creek, which is Iberdrola’s largest project in terms of megawatts, will create 15 to 20 permanent jobs, Litchfield said.

Iberdrola is paying about $1.1 million a year in leases to property owners, with about $8,000 to landowners where the wind turbines are sited, and smaller amounts to neighbors, with payments going to about 320 parties, Litchfield said.

Some neighbors have raised concerns about the health threat, noise, the loss of aesthetics, declining property values, a loss of quality of life, flicker or shadows passing over buildings, the impact on birds and bats and other issues. But the project has had strong community support and little opposition.

The state approved the project, although 61 conditions were imposed. The company and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation must resolve problems that arise.

Under state rules, the wind turbines must be at least 900 feet from the nearest homes.

But Iberdrola has increased the setbacks and they average about 1,600 feet,â?¨ Litchfield said.

The noise from the wind turbines will be a swooshing sound of about 50 decibels, Litchfield said. In comparison, background noise is generally 30 to 50 decibels. Working in an office is 60 to 70 decibels and riding in a car is 80 to 90 decibels.

The company took steps to mitigate birds and bats encountering the twirling blades.

The biggest concern in the farming community was potential damage during construction to drain tiles that lace the farm fields that were once part of Ohio’s Great Black Swamp, Litchfield said.

Iberdrola will pay about $2.7 million a year in local taxes. Under restructured Ohio rules, the company is paying $18,000 a year per wind turbine.

The firm is now the No. 1 taxpayer in Van Wert County and pays the county more than the top 14 other taxpayers together, Copleman said.

Wind is providing a big financial boost to Van Wert County farmers, Commissioner Dudgeon said. "In a way, we got three big crops here now: corn, soybeans and wind. …What’s happening here is big."

Bob Downing,