Advocates see a bright future for large-scale solar projects in Ohio

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YELLOWBUD, Ohio (WOSU) — Allen Hull has spent almost all of his life in Yellowbud, Ohio, as a third-generation paper mill employee. After 32 years, he switched careers – to solar energy.

Hull manages Yellowbud Solar Farm. The 274-megawatt plant sits on about 1,300 acres about 50 miles south of Columbus. It’s home to more than 775,000 solar panels.

At first a skeptic, Hull said he’s come to embrace solar power.

“This is quiet. It’s clean,” he said. “What’s not to like, right? Now, we don’t even have farm equipment running next to you.”

National rankings from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Forbes put Ohio in the middle of the pack for solar energy. Just over 1 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar. More than 176,000 Ohio homes are powered by solar.

Midwestern neighbors Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin rank near Ohio. Illinois sits a little higher.

Some projections anticipate solar growing rapidly in the Midwest in the coming years.

Big solar farms funded by companies hungry for energy

Operational since June, Yellowbud is National Grid Renewables’ first solar farm in Ohio – but it’s one of several in the state funded by investor Amazon.

The mega e-commerce company has 18 solar and wind projects operational or in the works in Ohio. Amazon head of energy Nat Sahlstrom said that’s part of the company’s plan to rely fully on renewable energy by 2025.

“Renewable energy allows companies and businesses and communities to decarbonize their power supply,” Sahlstrom said.

Facebook parent company Meta and Campbell Soup Co. also have large solar projects in the state.

Of course, it’s not always sunny in Ohio. Even as the Yellowbud team leads a tour, it begins to drizzle – then pour.

Greg Corder with National Grid Renewables said despite the rain, the solar farm is still producing power.

“Now with the technology and the increased need. Midwest weather can do fine for producing power even on a cloudy day,” he said.

But not every Yellowbud-sized solar project gets off the ground in Ohio.

The would-be 1,200 acre Kingwood solar project in Greene County was rejected late last year after the Ohio Power Siting Board determined it didn’t serve the public interest.

Of some 70 participants at a public hearing, more than three-fourths were opposed to the site. They worried it would unalterably change the rural community and take away agricultural land.

Kingwood appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the court dismissed the case in September, claiming lack of jurisdiction.

And a recent change to Ohio law gives local governments the option to reject large-scale solar projects that they don’t feel are a fit for their communities. That runs counter to state law that says local communities cannot reject fracking operations.

Ohio lawmakers looking at ways to promote individual buy-in

But Ohio lawmakers may be paving the way for more individuals to use solar energy with a bipartisan bill to create a Community Solar Pilot Program.

Tristian Rader with Solar United Neighbors said community solar allows residents to subscribe to panels not on their property and receive a credit on their energy bills.

“Everybody in the state of Ohio could potentially subscribe to an array should we pass this bill,” Rader said.

Rader’s nonprofit typically advocates for rooftop solar and solar co-ops to make homes more self-sustaining and energy more democratic. But Rader said people can’t always afford an array, or might be renters, or have too many trees for solar to work well.

“Community solar kind of alleviates all of those problems,” Rader said.

An Ohio University study found that a statewide community solar program could generate more than $5 billion for the economy and hundreds of millions of dollars in local tax revenue.

Back at Yellowbud, Amazon’s Sahlstrom said his company’s investment in renewable energy has already brought a $12 billion economic boost to the state.

“And it’s not just solar panels, its construction managers, it’s plant operators. It’s the indirect and induced effects.”

Hull, for his part, knows solar can be an adjustment.

“Yeah, it’s a change. You know, you’re not used to standing on your front porch and seeing solar panels, but there’s a lot of worse things you could stand there and look at.”