Can good neighbors and solar projects go together?

By Matt Reese

I am not sure Jesus had Ohio’s solar debate in mind when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” but I think it certainly applies to what is happening right now on both sides of the issue. 

Changes in utility scale electric generation and transmission systems have created a situation where Ohio landowners are being approached to consider leasing large tracts of ground for solar development through contracts ranging from 25 to 50 years. Certainly a loving neighbor would want financial success for others in the community. And those neighbors, if similarly loving, would of course want to do right by the wishes of those around them for the benefit of all. The current situation, though, in many unfortunate cases, pits neighbor against neighbor and is actively tearing communities and families apart. 

“We have a division occurring across Ohio: Those who stand to benefit financially from a lease that would allow for solar and wind development on their land and those who don’t want it — at least not in their area,” said Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program. “That creates friction.”

In an effort to address concerns with rampant wind and solar development in the state, Ohio’s Senate Bill 52 went into effect on Oct. 11. SB 52 expands local involvement in the siting and approval of large, utility-scale wind and solar facilities but also potentially infringes upon landowner property rights in Ohio. The great hoax of SB 52 is that nearly all of the potential solar development in the state is already in the works and not subject to the legislation.

According to Hall, SB 52:

• Allows county commissioners to designate “restricted areas” where such facilities may not locate.

• Allows county citizens to petition for a referendum to approve or reject restricted area designations.

• Requires developers to hold a public meeting overviewing a proposed facility in the county where it would locate.

• Allows county commissioners to prohibit or limit a proposed wind or solar facility after learning of it at the public meeting.

• Requires county and township representatives to sit on the Ohio Power Siting Board committee that reviews facility applications.

• Strengthens current requirements for wind and solar developers to submit decommissioning plans and performance bonds to address removal of a facility at the end of its lifetime. 

One problem, though, is that limiting the rights of landowners to make decisions regarding their property may result in potentially messy local legal action back against the community. Local officials in Delaware County, for example, have already started looking into blocking solar development.

There are, in fact, a number of broad wind/solar/SB 52 issues at work currently in rural Ohio resulting in some very unpleasant, unloving realities. There are both many pros and many cons to wind and solar development in Ohio.

Pros  

• In my opinion, wind and solar development may be among the very best choices for non-farmland use in unincorporated land in rural Ohio due to low community costs and significant community economic benefits compared to other non-farm land uses. For generations, Ohio farmland has been converted into houses, housing developments, commercial developments, industrial parks, waste treatment facilities, landfills, and the list goes on. Which would you rather have in in your backyard? A landfill? A shopping center? A housing development? Or a solar field? 

• The per acre dollar amounts over the course of some of these contracts can be very appealing and lucrative for landowners. 

• These big dollar amounts to landowners typically get spent locally in some capacity. Granted, some of the landowners in question are not local, but many of them are.

• While solar does take land out of agriculture production, it also uniquely allows for that land to return to production after the expiration of the contract, much more so than other alternative land uses (such as houses, warehouses and strip malls). The non-ag footprint of wind is quite small compared to other land uses.

• No matter what you think about the efficiency or cost/benefit of wind and solar energy production, we all benefit from a diversified energy portfolio moving forward. 

• Right or wrong, some people just love the idea of large-scale wind and solar energy.

Cons

• There are not many folks who appreciate farmland in Ohio more than yours truly. The economics, value beyond economics, aesthetics, history, scarcity, and basis for community and society of our beautiful Ohio soils are not lost upon me. I don’t want to see any of Ohio’s existing farmland used for anything else other than agriculture. Period. It is a reality, though, that farmland conversion to non-farm uses has happened and will continue to happen.  

• There is a long track record of Ohio landowners being taken advantage of due to energy resource development. Be careful.

• Conversion of farmland to wind and solar eliminates the very significant landowner benefits of CAUV for property taxes. Some contracts have provisions where the energy company helps address recoupment for exiting CAUV. 

• Sometimes the numbers simply do not seem to add up in the complex politics of wind and solar in Ohio.

• There are legitimate concerns with wind and solar development disrupting drainage, changing local ecosystems and creating runoff issues. With such massive proposed one-of-a-kind projects, there is no way to truly assess any negative impacts until after the project is completed. Landowners need to get their local SWCD, county engineer and local land improvement contractors involved in the process.

• What if things go poorly and the companies fail to clean up their giant mess?

• Right or wrong, some people just hate the idea of large-scale wind and solar energy.

Hall and Eric Romich, statewide energy specialist for Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, created videos and several articles explaining the new law and offering guidance on more aspects to these often locally controversial lease agreements with utility companies.

According to PJM, the 13-state Regional Transmission Organization including Ohio, there are almost 80 proposed utility scale solar projects for Ohio not subject to the rules of SB 52. As of September, there were over 40 solar project applications awaiting the Ohio Power Siting Board’s approval. These 40+ utility-scale solar projects represent over 75,000 acres of development converting mostly agricultural land to solar panels — each acre with its own share of rejoicing, heartache and opportunities to love your neighbor, or not.

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