Exploring “Homegrown Energy”: Apex Brings Renewable Energy to Local Communities

OXFORD, Ohio — When driving across north-central Ohio, wind turbines are visible on the horizon. The consistent rotation of the turbines and their towering presence serves as a reminder of the impact renewable energy has in Ohio. Conducive to renewable energy production, Ohio’s landscape is gaining attraction from national companies.

One example is Apex Clean Energy, based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. Since its founding in 2009, the company has worked to bring green energies to market – including wind, solar, and energy storage solutions. They currently have multiple projects in Ohio led by a Senior Development Manager, John Arehart III.

Three weeks out of every month, Arehart leaves his family in Virginia and travels to his “home away from home.”

Arehart grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, a largely agricultural region in Virginia. Coming from a farming family himself, Arehart said he has “seen how nature is integral to people’s livelihoods.”  It’s this unique understanding that uniquely positioned him for a role in Ohio, a state with many similarities to Virginia.

A Career Shift into Renewables

Arehart graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s of science degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Environmental Science. He went on to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Virginia in Urban and Environmental Planning.

After graduating, Arehart worked for a civil engineering firm for around five years in order to acquire his professional engineering license. His goal all along was to move into the environmental field, working on sustainable designs for residential and farmland developments.

In 2009, when the real estate market collapsed, Arehart became more interested in the renewable energy market. At the same time, a new renewable wind company, Apex Clean Energy, was formed with the intention of furthering the shift to renewable energies across the United States.

John Arehart was brought on to the Apex team when there were just nine employees, beginning as a development manager for Apex’s initial project portfolio’s in Oklahoma, Indiana and Ohio – the role he continues to hold today.

As the first person assigned to the region, Arehart has watched the company grow firsthand. He initially began searching for opportunities to grow Apex’s wind portfolio in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ohio.

Today, Arehart is one of many portfolio managers who travel across the country to lead wind, solar, and energy storage projects.

His team now includes six others: three developers (one for each project), a local representative, and two public affairs employees to supplement Arehart.

Competing Companies

In the past, major utility companies like American Electric Power, AEP, have driven wind energy in Ohio. Now the state is changing. The private sector has shown an increased interest in wind investment.  Renewables are financially competitive and sustainability has become a part of the optics of companies.

Ikea recently purchased Apex projects in Texas and Illinois as they have a commitment to being 100 percent renewable by 2020. Other international corporations have expressed their commitment to renewable power as well.  Amazon, Facebook, and Nestle have shifted towards purchasing energy from companies similar to Apex.

Although the dedication to renewables is seen as a boost to the public image of a company, a driving force is a financial incentive. Renewable energy systems continue to drop in price. The International Renewable Energy Agency reported that the cost of onshore wind has dropped by 23 percent since 2010 and will only continue to decrease. 

When public utilities or private companies release requests for proposals for energy systems, they are always looking for the lowest cost for the amount of energy needed.

Apex competes directly with coal and natural gas companies in the bidding process, which shifts the focus from the energy source type to competing prices for the energy delivered. Apex has been successful in beating traditional energy sources in price, offering customers cheaper energy that has a much smaller environmental impact.

Gone with the Wind

There are a number of hurdles companies need to clear in order to develop a wind farm, and most of these projects take years to complete.

To begin a project, Apex identifies potential counties that would provide a conducive environment for a wind project. They research the counties’ power grid, wind resource, and land ownership to understand the feasibility of a project. In identifying possible leasees, they reach out to landowners to gauge their interest.

The typical wind farm requires twenty to thirty thousand acres of land, so it is necessary to obtain considerable buy-in from the local community.

The next step is working with local officials and government agencies to create studies- looking at the potential impacts and feasibility of the project.

The last step is to apply for a permit through the Ohio Power Siting Board that grants a certificate of need to finalize the project.

In addition to the lengthy process wind projects demand, Ohio has recently made things even more challenging for the wind energy industry. In 2014, the Ohio legislature passed a law that changed the guidelines for siting wind turbines, creating some of the most stringent regulations in the entire country. Since then, no new wind projects have been permitted.

As Arehart explains, these changes have “killed the potential for investment” in wind energy in Ohio. In fact, Apex elected to abandon an Ohio project this fall due to the increased barriers created by the legislation.

Even in the face of legislative barriers, Apex is working on three projects in North Central Ohio: Emerson Creek Wind, Republic Wind, and Honey Creek Project. The last project is still in the beginning stages while the Emerson Creek Wind and Republic Wind projects are closer to being permitted.

After building a renewable energy installation, Apex looks to sell the project. In the past, only utility companies would invest in large scale energy development projects, but they are increasingly being purchased by private companies.

Like a Good Neighbor

Apex prides itself on its model of community engagement. “At Apex, and certainly for our Ohio team of developers, our model is to become highly involved in the communities we’re present in,” Arehart said.

This model sets them apart from other companies, “We want to be well known in the community and accepted in the community, and certainly give back.”

Apex teams make the most of their presence in a community; giving informative presentations at schools, supporting events at the county fairs, as well as getting involved in local agricultural clubs.

Apex wants local communities to be well-informed about the projects that will ultimately take place in their backyards. Community support is crucial to a successful project Arehart explains, “We want to be a good neighbor.”

For Arehart, the fact that these projects allow farmers and other landowners to create a stable second income from hosting a wind turbine is especially important. For grain and soybean farmers, whose incomes rely on volatile markets, wind projects provide financial security.

For the younger generation of famers, “They see the income as a way to continue being a farmer instead of having to move to a city for a job.”

For the community at large, wind projects bring a significant amount of money to the local economy. In Ohio, by law, nine thousand dollars per megawatt must be paid annually to the local entities.

Split three ways, a third goes to the local schools, a third to the county, and a final third is sent to the local townships. For the Republic Wind project in Seneca and Sandusky Counties, the annual payment will be upwards of $1.8 million.

The revenue generated by these wind projects significantly benefits the local communities. Arehart explains, “That kind of money is not seen in these rural communities very often.

Normally a wind or solar project is the biggest economic development sometimes ever in that community.” The funds generated are in addition to tax dollars, and the impact is visible. “You see [the revenue] in better roads, significantly upgraded schools, you can see that they have the additional money coming in.”

Looking Forward to the Future

For the next several years Apex’s portfolio in Ohio will focus on the completion of their current projects. While the current legislative environment complicates further projects, Apex still sees a future in bringing solar projects to Ohio.

Personally, Arehart has a positive outlook on the future of clean energy in Ohio. He notes that unlike other states, Ohio has a unique combination of rural areas to generate power, and population centers that need their energy demands met.

 “Ohio is able to do home-grown energy that supports the local economics while delivering power regionally,” Arehart explains. “It couldn’t be a more efficient cycle.”

Looking to the future, Apex will continue investing in local communities in Ohio. With such a well-positioned market, Arehart hopes that Ohio will remediate legislative barriers and embrace the opportunity of clean energy investment that has meant so much to communities across the state.

by Erin Fisher