By Matt Reese
The solar debate is heating up in rural Ohio.
“It is huge here in Ohio and it is growing. I think we have probably a dozen projects in various stages of development in terms of utility scale solar development,” said Brandon Kern, with Ohio Farm Bureau. “There are a lot of mixed feelings about this. You have landowners and farmers who see this as an opportunity to diversify income. You have others who are concerned about the competitive strain it could put on trying to acquire farmland. If you are out there trying to rent ground and some of this ground is being taken up with solar development, you are probably concerned. We understand that. You also have another element of concern out there about what level of local engagement is appropriate for community members to have input into the process for where these utility scale developments get sited. We certainly understand all of those dynamics. We are working through a lot of these issues.
“And, with solar, once the project gets to the end of its useful life, there is reclamation that is able to be done and you can put farmland back into production after the useful life of the solar array. That is one thing we are working on with the solar developers too to make sure that is a part of these agreements with landowners. This is a very complex issue for sure.”
Jane Sweet and her family made the decision to lease some of their farmland for use in the Kingwood Solar Project in Greene County. Kingwood Solar is approximately 1,500 acres extending along 15 miles end-to-end. The Kingwood Solar application was filed with the Ohio Power Siting Board on April 16. The certificate application includes several hundred pages of documents and various plans, surveys, studies, and reports pertaining to the development work on this project. The panels used in the project will be, by weight, 80% comprised of glass and aluminum, which are readily recycled commodities. Copper, silver and semiconductor materials make up the majority of the rest of the panel. These materials can be recovered and reused.
A pollinator friendly groundcover blend will be planted around and under the solar panels. The area will be professionally maintained until the ground cover is established and invasive species are eliminated.
Sweet is the fourth generation on the farm and has had some tough decisions to make with a fifth generation to consider. The land is currently rented out for crop production and the future looks bright with solar. Moving forward, a third of the farm will remain in crop production with the rest going to solar.
“My dad would always ask what I was going to do with the farm when he wasn’t here. He always challenged us to look at the best use for our land. We no longer have animals and we just have corn and soybeans on the farm. We have looked at the facts. Agriculture has to survive the cycles of unpredictable weather, rising production costs, and decreasing profit margins. Today we require large, high-tech and expensive machinery and that keeps us in debt,” Sweet said. “There were farm jobs and operations that are no longer here and that won’t exist in the future. We want to keep the land in the family, but how are we going to do this? We got together as a family to discuss the future and the sustainability of the farm. We were at the point of considering selling it. How can we work with this? We received mailings from different companies about solar, or selling to investors. We looked at all of them. We talked to attorneys, we talked to Farm Bureau and we talked to many people who pay attention to what is going on with farmland. We believe this solar project is preferable to selling our land for permanent non-agricultural use.”
And, make no mistake, non-agricultural land use is a very viable and often-used option historically for Ohio agriculture.
“We drive up and down the roads in our community and we see houses built where farmland used to be,” Sweet said. “I know community members don’t want to lose farmland. However, in the past 20 to 30 years in the townships surrounding the proposed Kingwood Solar project, a large number of farm acres have changed hands. Many houses now stand where crops once grew. For death and taxes, farm families sold off building lots, entire farms or farm parcels through auction, land developers, or private sales. Except for bidding at an auction, I did not have any say, or any right to decide, the ultimate use of my neighbors’ land. I trusted they would develop their land in a way that was right for their family and our community.”
A big part of the local objection about the solar project involves the aesthetics and the environment.
“It is not a block of unsightly panels. The project curves along farm roads and through woods, and along beside some houses and cropland, including my own,” Sweet said. “The view depends on your perspective. I remember my mother saying as a new house was being built that, ‘Oh no, now I’m going to have to look at that.’ I know now that when I am looking out the window during corn season, all I see is corn. I’m not looking at some farm half a mile across the way. I just see corn. When I drive up and down the country roads, I just see the country road. Some of the houses that replaced cropland are now surrounded by privacy evergreen trees and other view-shielding plantings. They want to be hidden as well.
“We are looking at view-shielding greenery being planted around the fences of the solar project. We are looking at flowering habitats for pollinators. There is a plan to keep it in good appearance for all of us. We are concerned about the environment too. The land will be lying fallow for 30 years and that allows the microbes and earthworms to work in the soil for 30 years. The solar panels are low profile and emission free. And once the construction is done, it makes a quiet neighbor. And we are putting clean water into our aquifer without fertilizers or pesticides.”
After the 30-year lease, there is a plan in place to put the land back into agricultural production.
“The company we are working with has a plan on how they will return this property to farmland in the future. They are not digging up huge areas,” Sweet said. “They drive metal pylons from 4 feet to 10 feet into the ground, depending on the kind of soil. These can be pulled out — not cut out and left in the ground — in the future. These panels can be recycled completely. All of the science is improving and we do not want a lot of waste left. There is stone and concrete that would have to be removed to return to crop land, but not to the extent of returning basements and septic tanks to farmland.”
The other challenges with houses are the costs for the community that come along with them in terms of water, septic, bigger schools, and wider roads, just to name a few. Solar projects, by comparison, are an economic benefit. The energy diversification benefits will remain in the community and the Kingwood Solar energy project will add $1.5 million to local schools and government annually.
“The solar company we are working with has hosted community meetings, has a website, Facebook page, and has made their team available to the community,” Sweet said. “We can’t hide the project.”
Despite clear benefits with solar development, there are also many legitimate concerns with these projects being proposed and constructed around the state. Dusty Bohl is a fourth generation dairy and crop farmer in southern Highland County who has been wrestling with a new and unwanted neighbor just to the north. Highland Solar will be a 300-megawatt facility owned and operated by Hecate Energy. It will be located between Buford and north of Mowrystown on 3,400 acres in Clay and Whiteoak townships.
“A couple of years ago it was brought up in the community that we had some companies that were looking to build solar panels. There are three different projects in the area. The closest one is Highland Solar. They are about 2.5 miles north of me. At the time they started, I think they were around the third largest project being built in the United States. They started contacting local residents about selling their land for solar panels,” Bohl said. “We had concerns about it. A major concern for us is a creek that runs through our farm and by our house. It starts in about the center of the main solar area. In our location we are pretty flat and our soil does not drain very well. We are concerned about run-off and potential toxins in the soil. A lot of our soil types are highly erodible. It is a very tight clay, mostly Clermont. When you start putting solar panels on all of this land, you have to divert that water somewhere. If we get an inch of rain, the creek can handle it pretty well. It seems like here lately though we are getting more 3- or 4-inch rains, sometimes day after day. That runoff has to go somewhere and unfortunately we are just downstream.”
While the science of solar energy has made tremendous progress in recent years, there are still many unknowns about the total impact of massive numbers of acres under solar panels. A good resource to start with on solar research is: energizeohio.osu.edu.
This research overwhelmingly demonstrates the safety and improved efficiency of solar technology, but that does not mean an absence of some gray areas regarding the scope of solar panels being proposed, particularly when they’re right next door. Bohl and his family have plenty of concerns about the unintended unknowns ahead as a result of the huge shift in land use for their community. Bohl’s comments on the project are on record with the Power Siting Board, but he feels like the project really has not taken the community’s concerns into account.
“They had two different meetings down here. The first one was in September of 2018. The development company and the Siting Board were there putting on a demonstration of their plans and the project. We had another meeting — I believe in February of ‘19 — and you could talk about your concerns,” Bohl said. “At that second meeting, some of the people in favor of it said they had been originally contacted back in late 2015 and 2016. It was not really mentioned in the community until mid- to late 2018. By then, I think most of the project had already been determined and the community or the township never really had much say in it. And solar companies keep on contracting more land for development around here. It is spreading like wildfire.”
The consequences of the project are just beginning.
“They are offering at least double of what current land value is. That will raise land values and taxes for a little while. On the flip side, there are residents on the fringe of where the development is going to be and they are afraid and want to leave before all of this starts. It seems like today, when houses go on the market around here, a lot of them are sold above asking price in about a week or so. I know of somebody who wanted to relocate because they did not want to see all of these solar panels in their front yard. They listed their house and had several contacts on it, but once the people interested in buying the house found out it was going to be right next to the solar panels, they lost all of the bids,” Bohl said. “Ag businesses are losing business because of these solar panel going in. When you lose that business you still have to make that bottom line and have to start increasing prices on your product. That could be harder on us local farmers who do not have a stake in this solar panel deal. And they are not making any more land. It is hard to compete with these big conglomerate companies on land prices. I think it is all going to hurt the ag business in southern Highland County.”
The size of the project is also a concern for the local ecosystem.
“When they build these panels, the plans are to put chain link fences around them. The small wildlife can go through those chain link fences, but the bigger wildlife like deer and coyotes can’t, and they will have to look for a different food source. The solar project just north of me is projected to be 3,000 acres in chain link fence. It is going to change the ecosystem,” he said. “I’m not against green energy or solar energy or anything like that. The thing I see wrong about solar panels is that, even though it has greatly increased in efficiency in the last 15 or 20 years, it is still low efficiency. We don’t have the sun 24 hours a day and we still have to rely on another energy source. Around here coal plants are supplying all of the energy for the area. As a farmer, I have to go to the bank and tell them what I am planning on doing, what I plan on harvesting and do a balance sheet. With these solar projects, I don’t see how you can be really efficient with them without being highly subsidized with taxpayer money.”
As for the future of his dairy and crop operation, Bohl hopes to continue his family’s tradition on the land, even in the long shadow of solar.