By Doug Graves
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Roughly 10 years ago when solar power first showed its face in the rural parts of Ohio and Indiana, there was no brush back, no protests. Solar power was relatively new and those in the rural communities of the state never thought solar power would gain strength or pose any problems to their peaceful rural setting.
Now, solar power has people divided. Some landowners and farmers see solar power as an opportunity to diversify income. Others are concerned about the competitive strain it could put on trying to acquire farmland.
“There are a lot of mixed feelings about this. Solar power is huge here in Ohio and it is growing,” said Brandon Kern, of Ohio Farm Bureau. “I think we have probably a dozen projects in various stages of development in terms of utility scale solar development. You 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’re working through a lot of these issues.”
Last month the USDA Rural Development announced that it was investing $487 million in critical infrastructure for communities in 45 states, and several projects are funded in Ohio. USDA is making the investments under the Water and Environmental Program, the Rural Energy for America Program, the Electric Loan Program and the Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program.
“The investments will not only aid agricultural producers and rural small business owners save energy and improve their bottom line, it is also helping to reduce pollution, create jobs and promote economically vibrant rural communities,” said USDA Ohio Rural Development acting state director Beth Huhn.
Through the Rural Energy for America Program, for example, the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (based in Athens) will receive a $100,000 grant to provide free solar assessments to rural business and farmers throughout Ohio. At least 100 assessments are expected to be completed within a 12-month period. The council will assist 50 farmers, 101 businesses and 50 small businesses.
And solar projects are ongoing at this time. For instance, a $10,159 grant will be used to install a 15.6 kW solar photovoltaic system that will generate 20,352 kWh annually, replacing 93 percent of the electricity purchased from the grid for Howard Peller, a design service business, in Roseville.
A $5,982 grant will help install a 9.6 kW solar photovoltaic system that will generate 10,895 kWh annually, replacing 95 percent of the electricity purchased from the grid for Grasshopper Property Maintenance, Inc., in Millersburg.
And these projects lie not only in the eastern portion of Ohio, but in the western portion as well and even stretching into Indiana. In Greene County (Ohio), for example, there is the Kingwood Solar Project. It is approximately 1,500 acres extending along 15 miles end-to-end. The panels used in the project will be (by weight) 80 percent 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.
A pollinator friendly groundcover blend will be planted around and under these solar panels. The area will be professionally maintained until ground cover is established and invasive species are eliminated. After the expiration of a specified lease, there is a plan to put the land back into agricultural production. The Kingswood Solar energy project will add $1.5 million to local schools and government annually.
Projects such as these are money-saving for sure, but others say it is at the expense of the rural landscape. And not all solar proposals have been received so gracefully. Citizens packed the Lynchburg Fire Station in Lynchburg, Ohio, to air their grievances about perceived devaluation or property values, loss of productive farm land, wildlife and health concerns, and fears of pollution or ground water due to solar panel expansion.
In attendance were 200 private citizens, many of whom had property bordering the three proposed solar panel farms in the Lynchburg area.
State Rep. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro) was there to address the crowd and field as many concerns as possible. Many in attendance were in support of a pair of bills making their way through Senate and House committees in the Ohio Legislature that would give local townships the right to vote yes or no on allowing large-scale utility solar farms to build in their localities.
Three companies have proposed building three separate solar panel farms that are in close proximity to Lynchburg, two in Highland County and one across the county line in Clinton County. Directly east of the village is the Innergex-planned Palomino Solar Farm, rated at 200 megawatts and proposed to occupy 2,800 acres. To the south of Lynchburg is National Grid Renewables’ projected Dodson Creek Solar Array System, which is a 117-megawatt facility that will rest on 1,000 acres.
The Hoosier State is being bombarded by solar landscapes to a larger extent. In the state, thousands of acres of farmland are being developed or eyed for massive solar farms, and not everyone is pleased. To date, Indiana lost 19,000 agricultural production acres due to the installation of such solar panels.
One of the nation’s largest solar complexes is planned for Pulaski County in northern Indiana. The $1 billion development would encompass 4,500 acres and generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.
Larger solar farms are also coming to the agricultural fringes of the Indianapolis area. Shelby County has approved a 1,900-acre installation, and Boone County is being scouted for a 1,400-acre solar array just north of Zionsville.
“Throughout the Shelby County solar debate, officials have tried to do what is best for the county’s 40,000 residents, not just those opposed to the Ranger Power project or large solar installations in general,” said Shelby County Council President Tony Titus. “As a farmer, I’d like to see nothing but farmland, but you’ve got to weigh progress with agriculture. We don’t want to be Carmel or anything like that, but we also don’t want to be left behind.”
Earlier this year, solar companies have approached various landowners in the Bath and Springfield townships in Franklin County, seeking to lease land for solar farm purposes. At the time, Franklin County did not have any zoning regulations involving solar or wind farms. However, on May 19, Franklin County Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of tougher zoning rules for wind and solar installations. The new regulations call for a 650-foot setback from a non-participating property to a wind or solar installation. The ordinance is similar to those adopted by other Indiana counties.
The proposed 14-megawatt Franklin County Solar Project will generate wholesale electricity from a series of solar panels on approximately 250 acres of private land in Bath, Ind. Geenex Solar is the company behind the effort.
“I don’t object to solar panels, I object to erecting those panels on prime farmland,” said Debbie Sintz, a resident of Bath Township in Franklin County. “And some of those panels will be right across from my house.”
Bath Road is the main artery leading Ohioans to Brookville Lake. Should the panels be given the OK such panels will line that road leading to the lake.
“We’ve been told they make a lot of noise and that they only last so long,” Sintz said. “They’ll be like the car batteries that are stored in a barn because no one will take them and recycle them.”
Solar developers are prepared to reclaim any used or unwanted solar equipment.
“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,” Kern said. “This is one thing we are working on with the solar developers too, to make sure that is part of these agreements with landowners. This is a very complex issue for sure.”
Dozens of members of Citizens Against Industrialized Solar Plants in Southwestern Shelby County (Indiana) are focused on stopping a second solar farm from being developed (by Utah-based sPower) near Bengal. They also want to nix overtures by two other companies they say are scouting the county for sites.
Protesters add that they worry about solar farms’ long-term effects on home values, topsoil, drainage and water quality throughout a solar array’s 35-year lifespan.
All told, at least 15 Indiana solar farms of 1,000 acres or more are slated to go online by 2024, with several more encompassing hundreds of acres also in the works. Even with solar projects in the works, only 0.5 to 2.0 percent of the state’s farmland would be devoted to renewable energy.
Many proponents of the solar installations will tell you they hold the promise of boosting the property tax base for pinched county governments and providing significantly more revenue for landowners who decide to lease their land to solar developers. And, that solar companies pay anywhere from $800 to $1,100 per acre per year to lease farmland in Indiana. That compares with the $200 an acre many landowners receive to rent their land to farmers.
Many opponents or this solar panel push will say they are intrusive and contain heavy metals that can leach into groundwater when disposed at the end of their lifecycle.
“Solar energy is not readily portable, storable, fungible or transformable,” said Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy. “There’s no evidence to support the assumption that solar cells are a zero carbon energy technology. They also require conventional power plants, or storage mechanisms such as batteries, with additional layers of environmental impacts.”
Solar projects in the works in Indiana, by county (acres, developer):
Lake County: 1,400 acres, Invenergy LLC
Jasper County: 5,000 acres, NextEra Energy
Pulaski County: 4,500 acres, Global Energy Generation
White County: 1,800 acres, NextEra Energy
Howard County: 2,000 acres, Engie Solar
Clinton County: 1,777 acres, Invenergy LLC
Boone County: 1,000-1,400 acres, NextEra Energy
Madison County: 1,200 acres, Invenergy
Randolph County: 1,400 acres, EDP Renewables
Henry County: 700 acres, NextEra Energy; 1,400 acres, Lightsource BP
Shelby County: 1,900 acres, Ranger Power; 1,500-2,000 acres, sPower
Bartholomew County: 1,200 acres, (developer undisclosed)
Sullivan County: 1,800 acres, Invenergy LLC
Knox County: 1,200 acres, Teneska & Capital Dynamics
Pike County: 1,200 acres, Teneska & Capital Dynamics
Stark County: 71 square miles, ESN, Advantage Capital & Inovateus
Ohio’s top 10 counties using solar energy (power, number of installations):
Cuyahoga: (11.27MW, 153 installations)
Hamilton: (7.76MW, 279)
Franklin: (8.05MW, 209)
Wayne: (7.08MW, 81)
Medina: (12.46MW, 48
Greene: (5.06MW, 64)
Lucas: (11.09MW, 46)
Licking (5.06MW, 55)
Butler: 2.41MW, 81)
Wyandot: (15.77MW, 25)