A project that could make Noble County a hub for integrated energy options and create hundreds of jobs needs final approval from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio before moving forward.
The commission, which monitors the activities of utilities and transportation companies in the state, is expected to consider the Turning Point Solar farm within the next couple of months, according to Todd Dietterle, a partner in New Harvest Ventures, one of the entities collaborating on the project. He anticipates a decision by September.
"We see this as a really sure bet," Dietterle said. "Something perhaps could arise, but we have been moving ahead."
Initial rejection by the PUCO likely would not derail the project, if the issues were minor.
"That's the final hurdle here, because if the PUCO says no, we'll have to go back and rework some stuff," Dietterle said.
"We've come really far. This will be a great project for the state, it'll be a great project for the rate payers and it will position Ohio as a leader in sustainable energy," he said.
About 1.6 million American homes use wind as an energy source.
That number is estimated to increase to 25 million homes by 2020.
Source: American Wind Energy Association
The 239,400-panel solar array is set to be constructed on reclaimed strip mine land off Ohio 83 in Noble County, not far from the border with Muskingum County. Once completed, it will cover approximately 500 acres. If built today, it would be the sixth-largest solar farm in the world, Dietterle said.
American Electric Power owns the land for the venture and will purchase power from Turning Point to meet state alternative energy requirements.
The plan is to build the solar farm in three phases over the course of two years, Dietterle said.
The solar farm was originally set to be located in Muskingum County, adjacent to The Wilds wildlife conservation park. The Noble County site was chosen because the land is flatter and it is closer to existing electrical transmission lines.
"A primary reason why the project is economically feasible is because the Big Muskie shovel ... ran on electricity," Dietterle said.
Described by the Ohio Academy of Science as "the world's largest earth-moving machine," the Big Muskie was built in the late 1960s for the Central Ohio Coal Company's mining efforts in Noble County. The machine's 460,000-pound bucket can be seen today at Miners' Memorial Park along Ohio 78 in Noble County.
A power transmission facility used by the Big Muskie is still in place and can be utilized by the new solar farm, Dietterle said.
"You don't have to build it anew. They are very expensive to build, in addition to the transmission lines," he said.
Because of state incentives for the project, the bulk of the taxes on it will likely be deferred for several years. However, the jobs it will create and the money spent at local businesses as a result should benefit the area.
Noble County commissioners recently voted to declare the county an alternative energy zone, the third established in the state. That means that in lieu of taxes, Turning Point would pay a fee to the county based on the amount of alternative energy being produced, said Scott Braden, president of the Noble County Community Improvement Corporation.
The designation also opens up such incentives to other alternative energy projects considering locating in the county, Braden said.
Although there has been a push for alternate energy sources in recent years, Dietterle said the idea for the solar farm came after the initial goal of his partnership - economic development in Appalachia.
"We feel there are multiple assets in Appalachia that are investment-worthy but tend to be overlooked by venture capitalists, who (often) live on the East and the West Coast and fly over Appalachia," he said.
Another expected benefit of the project is a commitment by the two Spanish companies manufacturing the major components of the solar panels to locate manufacturing facilities in Ohio. The locations have not been determined, but Braden said local officials have a site in mind.
The former MAHLE plant in Caldwell is being remade by the Community Improvement Corporation into a green manufacturing incubator site. Braden said the group will get full ownership of the 233,601-square-foot facility on April 1.
"We are putting together our marketing plan right now. We are starting to show the building to tenants," he said.
Although the site once housed the largest employer in Noble County, Braden said he does not expect a single entity to take up all the space again.
"Those tenants that could take that big of a building, they're just few and far between," he said. "So we're looking for multiple tenants."