Large solar projects in southeast Ohio spur conflicting feelings for local landowners

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Many years ago, Dan Abraham bought some land in Vinton County in southeast Ohio. It’s up on a ridge overlooking a valley, not far from Zaleski State Forest.

“I went down there and the realtor took me back on that hillside where I have those panoramic views, and it felt like God reached down and touched me and said, ‘Dan, you need to have this in your life.’”

Abraham and his family have used the property as a retreat from city life, a place to hunt and fish and camp. He and his wife plan to retire there.

But those scenic views are about to change, and will include a sea of solar panels — nearly half a million of them spread over hundreds of acres.

Abraham is deeply conflicted about this. He knows solar power will play a central role in the nation’s energy future. But he’s also concerned about how large-scale solar farms will impact the natural landscape.

“With solar panels there, the ambiance and the serenity of that is ruined,” he said. “It’s gone, and there’s no way to get it back.”

Ohio is experiencing a rush of interest from private energy developers looking to build utility-scale solar farms. Each installation involves hundreds of thousands of solar panels in neat rows over hundreds of acres that feed electricity into the power grid serving a multistate region.

These projects have raised concerns, often from surrounding landowners, about the impacts they will have on the natural landscape and on property values. Another common concern is the extent to which local communities can weigh in on these projects and how seriously this input is considered. Similar concerns have surfaced in other states where solar developers are making a big push.

In Ohio, the state Legislature responded this summer with a new law that gives county leaders the power to declare any area within the county off limits to large solar and wind-power projects.

Why Ohio?

Ohio may seem like an odd choice for big solar farms. The state isn’t known for abundant sunshine. The Solar Energy Industries Association ranked the 50 states in terms of the estimated output of solar panels given the climate. Ohio is near the bottom. The Western states are at the top, and it’s no surprise that most of the solar power produced in the United States is in the West, with California way out in front.

But solar technology is advancing rapidly and the photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into energy have become much more efficient in recent years in producing power even on overcast days.

And Ohio has something that developers of large solar farms need: lots of flat land, much of it in sparsely populated agricultural areas. Many of the large solar projects are built on land bought or leased from farmers, which itself raises concerns about taking so much agricultural land out of production.

East Coast states are demanding more renewable energy, said Jason Rafeld. He is executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Ohio, an industry group that promotes large solar projects.

But many of these states are too congested and not flat enough to install the big solar farms needed to meet the demand, Rafeld said, and their transmission grids don’t have enough excess capacity to handle a lot of new power generation.

“So where can you put them?” he said. “You sort of come west and the first state you hit is Ohio. We’ve got a very well developed high-voltage transmission network that has capacity on it, one because it’s been built that way … and two because there have been a number of coal plant closures … that have opened up capacity on the grid.”

So far, two solar farms are up and running in Ohio, one in Hardin County in the northwest that began operating in February and another in Brown County in southwest that went online in mid-November.

These two farms together can produce 350 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 42,000 homes in Ohio, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association. Once the energy is fed into the transmission grid, it won’t necessarily stay in Ohio, however, and average household electricity consumption varies by state.

Twenty-seven other solar farms have been approved for construction and 19 more are in the process of seeking a permit. If all of these projects get built, they would encompass more than 75,000 acres and collectively produce over 7,800 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 900,000 Ohio homes.

Two of the projects are in southeast Ohio. The Vinton County project was approved three years ago and is expected to begin construction next year and go online in 2023. In neighboring Jackson County, a developer is seeking approval for a project that will cover about 2,000 acres and include about 450,000 panels.

Missing letters

Dana Schutte bought her home on 72 acres in Jackson County and moved in last year with her partner, Jim Hammons, to live out her retirement. She first found out about the proposed solar project when her neighbor struck up a conversation with someone out working in the area who turned out to be a surveyor hired by the developer.

This was in mid-August, a few weeks after the developer held a public meeting in Jackson to give a presentation on the project. Developers of large energy projects like this are required to hold a public meeting before they file their application with the state. And they are supposed to mail letters announcing the meeting to people who own property immediately surrounding the proposed project area.

Dana Schutte stands for a portrait in front of farmland that a proposed solar farm would be built on in Jackson, Ohio, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. “You move out here to retire and then this comes up,” said Schutte while speaking her concern that the solar farm is going to alter her property’s value.
Dana Schutte stands in front of farmland that a proposed solar farm would be built on in Jackson County. She owns property across the road and is concerned about the impact this will have on her views and property value. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Schutte, whose property is across a road from part of the proposed solar farm, said she did not receive a letter. Schutte and Hammons said they have not met anyone who received the letter.

The company behind the Jackson County project is SunEnergy1, which describes itself as a top U.S. developer of utility-scale solar projects. This is its first project in Ohio.

Among the documents SunEnergy1 has filed as part of its application is a list of the names and addresses to whom the letters were sent at the end of June.

WOUB performed a simple online check of county property records to see who owns the 40 street addresses to which the company mailed letters. Eighteen of the letters were addressed to people who no longer own the property. In most of these cases they had sold it years ago. At least three of the people are dead. Two of the addresses are for vacant land, according to the county auditor’s office, so mail cannot be delivered there.

WOUB reached out to SunEnergy1 several times for comment on this story but did not receive a response.

Schutte and Hammons were so upset when they learned about the proposed solar project they spent $500 on signs that read “No solar farms” and staked them around the area. The signs include Schutte’s phone number.

“I know to stop something like this, it takes a lot of public participation, letters, complaints,” she said. “And it’s hard to fight big money like that.”

Gary Allen saw one of Schutte’s signs while driving to his Jackson County property in early November. This was the first he’d heard about the solar farm. His property borders the proposed project site, but he also did not receive a letter about the meeting.

Allen lives in Richmond, Kentucky, and there is no mailbox at his Jackson County property. But his Kentucky address is listed on the Jackson County auditor’s website on the record for his property. Several of the letters SunEnergy1 mailed were sent to property owners who live outside Jackson County.

Allen said he called one of SunEnergy1’s executives to find out why he had not received a letter and was told that the company had met its notification requirements. “He didn’t seem to be concerned,” Allen said. “He didn’t want to take my address. He just basically said we did what we were supposed to do.”

Allen said he supports renewable energy. He’s also an executive with Valvoline, and said he was surprised by SunEnergy1’s approach.

“They should be transparent, they should be engaging with the public,” he said. “They should be telling the public what the benefits are, what the risks are, and they’re not doing that. So, when there’s not that transparency that generates lack of trust, and so I’m not in a very trusting position right now of this project.”

Public input

The Vinton County project is being developed by Invenergy, a private company based in Chicago that has regional offices around the world. The company has developed solar, wind and natural gas projects throughout the United States and in three other continents.

Invenergy developed the first utility-scale solar project to come online in Ohio, in Hardin County, and has received approval to build two more big solar farms next to that first one.

SunEnergy1 is based in North Carolina and most of its projects are there, including one it built a few years ago that at the time was one of the largest solar farms on the East Coast. The company now appears to be expanding outside the state.

In Ohio, large-scale solar farms must be approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSD) before construction can begin. The process takes about a year and involves hundreds of pages of documents addressing environmental and socioeconomic impacts. This might include how the project will affect wildlife habitat, issues of drainage and soil erosion, or what visual buffers will be used so neighbors don’t have to see it.

Built into the process are opportunities for public involvement. In addition to the initial public meeting the developer is required to hold, the OPSD holds a hearing at which the public can give sworn testimony before a judge. People can also submit written comments throughout the process that become part of the official record.

The question is whether this public input makes a difference.

Abraham, the Vinton County property owner, isn’t sure it does.

“Was I able to get up and voice my opinions and have a platform? Yes,” he said. “Do I 100 percent think that everything I said was truly understood? No, because I don’t think you could understand it unless you’re actually in that position.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that individual property owners in the area around a proposed solar farm might feel their voices aren’t heard, especially if their goal is to stop the project and that doesn’t happen.

But concerns about public input have been raised by a source typically associated with a pro-business posture: the Ohio Farm Bureau. The bureau has nothing against large-scale solar farms. Many of these projects are built on land leased from farmers looking for a more lucrative and stable source of income. And the bureau supports their right to do what they wish with their property.

The Farm Bureau opposed the legislation that gave Ohio county officials the power to declare land off-limits to solar and wind projects, arguing it was an unfair restriction on private property rights. But in testimony submitted to a Senate committee, the bureau delivered harsh criticism of the public input process.

“The current process allows developers to simply go through the motions of local outreach and ‘box-checking’ knowing their project proposal is likely to be approved regardless of the thoroughness of their work,” the bureau wrote in its statement. “They are not actually engaging communities because there is no real consequence of local opposition. … Local residents are not given due consideration.”

Dale Arnold helped shape that statement. He is the Farm Bureau’s director of energy policy and lately he spends a lot of time working with solar developers and OPSD staff. The bureau’s chief interest in large solar projects is making sure they don’t cause problems for surrounding farmers, and that at the end of their lifespan, usually several decades, the land they occupy is fit to return to farming.

Arnold said he encourages developers to take a proactive approach to community outreach. Most of these companies have field representatives, he said, and “that person needs to get into their shiny white pickup truck and go down every road and stop at every house and introduce themself.”

“Every dollar you spend on effective community outreach is going to save you 15 dollars in litigation in 18 months. Where do you want to spend your money? And if you’re serious about being here, and if you’re serious about being part of this community long term, 30, 40, 50 years, you need to know, understand and meet your neighbors.”

Views and values

Public input does influence the OPSB’s decisions on these large-scale energy projects, said Matt Schilling, who as director of public affairs for the Ohio Public Utilities Commission also represents the OPSB.

“The board members take very seriously the input from the public, and it is stuff that shapes the outcomes in these cases,” he said.

Schilling said the board rarely approves projects just as they are proposed. Usually there are dozens of conditions that get added and that the developer must accept to get approved. Public input can shape these conditions, he said.

A sign to raise awareness about a proposed solar farm in Jackson County, Ohio, is seen in a community member’s lawn along the road to Schutte’s home, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
A sign opposing a proposed solar farm in Jackson County is staked in a resident’s yard along the road to Dana Schutte’s home. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
And if there’s enough public opposition, it can stop a project. OPSB staff recently recommended that the board not approve two proposed solar farms. For a project in Greene County in southwest Ohio, the staff report cited overwhelming opposition from residents and local government officials. Public opposition also factored into the recommendation for a project in Allen County in the northwest.

The two most common concerns raised by the public when it comes to large solar farms are related. One is how these projects will change the landscape and the other is how this will affect property values.

Many who grew up in rural areas stay because they like the natural beauty. Others move there for the same reasons. Some worry that a sea of shiny panels mounted on steel posts will destroy this pastoral esthetic and discourage others from moving to the area, depressing property values.

“Would I rather have this solar farm two ridges over and I don’t have to look at it?” Abraham said. “Absolutely. Would that keep my property values where I anticipated they would be? Yes.”

“I don’t see any efforts here … for surrounding landowners to have any compensation for any devaluation in their property values,” he said. “So people like myself and other landowners, we’re just stuck.”

These are legitimate concerns, said Rafeld of the Ohio solar industry group.

“Developers that hear those concerns, most of the good ones, are willing to do something to address it,” he said.

It’s hard to predict what impact, if any, a big solar farm will have on property values, Rafeld said. But some developers make agreements upfront with individual landowners to compensate them for lost value, he said.

Developers also try to work with area residents when it comes to esthetic concerns, Rafeld said. The panels can be set back from the perimeter of the project area to create a buffer zone between them and nearby neighbors. The panels must be fenced off for security and safety reasons, but this can be masked with some kind of vegetative screening that blends well into the natural landscape, he said.

“You’re viewshed? That’s valid, right?” Rafeld said. “You don’t want to look at a terrible, ugly fence right in front of your house. That’s legitimate. So let’s make sure that’s addressed.”

“I’m going to be willing to bet that the developer is going to be willing to put up enough screening to satisfy that resident. That’s part of their job … is making the community happy. That’s what they should be doing.”

The OPSB considers plans for visual screening as part of its review and won’t sign off on a project unless it’s satisfied, Schilling said.

“Board staff is very concerned and interested in the manner in which these things are going to be screened,” he said. “That’s something that … we’re paying more and more attention to.”

Money for counties

Setbacks and natural screenings can help soften the visual impact for nearby residents at ground level. But for those whose property overlooks a solar farm, there’s not much that can be done to cloak half a million panels or so. And there’s little developers can do to satisfy those who simply do not want any disruption to the landscape that affects their views, Rafeld said.

“It is important to remember that the views that people are talking about are usually not their land,” he said. “So you’re talking about a farmer or landowner that owns the land and to a large degree should have the right to do with that land what they want to do with it.”

Rafeld said he believes that some of the concerns people have stem in part from a fear of the unknown. Most people haven’t seen a large solar farm up close, and with only two in operation so far in Ohio, it’s not an easy thing to do.

“I understand right now it’s not there,” he said. “You can’t just drive a few minutes down the road and see what it looks like because it’s not around yet. So the apprehension is, I think it’s reasonable.”

As more projects come online, Rafeld said, he expects that a lot of the concerns people have now will subside.

“Once people see these they’re going to go, ‘Oh, that’s all it is? I thought it was a lot more,’” he said. “They don’t make any noise, they don’t emit any smell, they don’t really create anything.”

Something solar developers are doing to sweeten the deal for communities is offer annual payments to county governments for the life of the project, which is typically 30 to 50 years. Invenergy, for example, will pay Vinton County up to $931,250 a year, which equates to more than $37 million over the life of the project.

Critics might see this as an attempt by developers to buy their way into communities, especially poor rural areas desperate for revenue, and muffle the objections of residents concerned about the projects.

Rafeld said landowners who sell or lease to solar developers could just as easily do something else with their property that area residents don’t like, and without the same economic benefit to the community that comes from the annual payments.

“That’s a lot of improvement in the school system. That’s a lot of improvement in social services. That’s a lot of improvement in infrastructure and EMS and the government there that supports the community,” he said.

Another common concern about solar farms is what happens to them when they reach the end of their useful life, or if the company goes out of business or otherwise decides to abandon the project.

Ohio law requires developers to post a bond before they start construction that will cover the cost of removing the solar farm. And the amount of the bond has to be reevaluated every five years to ensure it’s still enough.

Bigger is faster

Building huge solar farms that pipe massive amounts of electricity into a regional transmission grid is one approach to harvesting power from the sun and helping the nation transition to a renewable energy future.

There is another approach. Communities, or even clusters of communities, could harvest their own power through solar panels installed on the roofs of homes and businesses and smaller ground-based operations.

This is known as distributed solar, where the power is created and used close to home. This would give communities more energy independence and more control over what they pay for electricity, said Mathew Roberts, director of marketing for the Sustainable Ohio Energy Council, which is based in Athens.

But this would require a lot of coordination with and buy-in from homeowners and business owners as well as local government officials, state regulators and utility operators just to get the ball rolling, Roberts said. And then it would take a lot of time to set up, including upgrades to the utility grid to handle all this distributed solar energy.

“It’s much easier just to find a piece of land, pay the property owner, get everything lined up and just build very large and find someone to buy it all,” he said.

Roberts believes that in the long run communities would benefit more from distributed solar systems. But to make significant progress in the shift to renewable energy, thousands and thousands of communities across the country would all have to do the same. Climate change is demanding more immediate solutions, he said.

“The school of thought to advocate for the large utility-scale solar,” he said, “is we only have so much of a window of time to produce as much renewable energy that world leaders are saying we need to to address climate change.”