The issues with large-scale solar
- Published: August 1, 2019
This is the second of two articles.
Four years ago, Nicole Marvin moved with her family to a bucolic property on Bradfute Lane in Cedarville Township. From their backyard, they can watch blue herons nest in a nearby creek, and regularly spot foxes, possums, groundhogs, coyote and deer roaming the land.
“It is really like sacred ground to us. It’s our piece of heaven,” Marvin said in a recent interview.
Because sales were few and far between, it took years for the family to find a property in the area, added Marvin, a real estate agent. But over the last two months, eight homes have sold nearby, she said. “For sale” signs are popping up all around the area, which encompasses parts of Cedarville, Miami and Xenia townships.
It’s one sign of a coming change for the rural area southeast of Yellow Springs, which may someday be the site of a large solar energy project.
An Australian company, Lendlease, has acquired close to 1,000 acres of long-term leases there as part of its Kingswood Solar Farm, a utility-scale solar array that could cover 1,200 acres and produce 175 megawatts of green electricity.
For Marvin, it’s not a welcome change. Instead of wildlife, the view from her back porch will be solar panels as far as the eye can see. And if the rash of recent sales are any indication, property values could take a dive as well as her quality of life.
“If we care about the land, we have to speak up and say something about this,” Marvin said. “We have to ask, ‘What’s the highest and best use of this land?’”
Others believes large-scale solar may be its best use. The proposed solar project is indicative of a trend away from coal-fired electricity and toward renewable energy, which is good news to some green energy advocates and climate change activists. They say projects like Lendlease’s are desperately needed.
To Jane Harf, director of the nonprofit Green Energy Ohio, utility-scale solar confers a variety of economic and community benefits, but the “elephant in the room” is the impact on climate change.
“These are technologies that could help us, in the long run, to avoid a potential disaster,” Harf said of the climate threat.
Last year, just 0.24% of Ohio’s electricity was generated by solar. But that could soon change, as six utility-scale solar arrays have been approved recently in the state, including what would be the largest array east of the Mississippi, at 300MW. Three more are pending, including another Lendlease project in southern Ohio; none are currently operational.
Although Lendlease has yet to apply for a permit to build the local project, other solar companies have claimed additional environmental benefits from solar arrays. Allowing the fields to lie fallow for decades would improve the soil, companies have contended, while pollinator plantings could boost crop production in adjacent fields. Harf agrees.
“If you plant pollinator [attractors] you’re adding value, you’re not taking away value,” she said.
This week, the News looks at the regulatory process that will soon get underway, and explores different opinions on the environmental impact of the array.
A ‘time-tested process’
How will the solar project be permitted, and will the environment and community be protected in the process?
Those questions are at the forefront of the minds of residents in the area, some of whom have formed a new group, Citizens for Greene Acres, to oppose the array.
The Ohio Power Siting Board, or OPSB, is the state’s permitting authority for all large-scale power generation projects, which includes 50MW or larger solar farms.
Dale Arnold, director of energy policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau, which regularly participates in the OPSB process, described it as a “conflict-resolution process” that weighs the needs of multiple groups.
“We in Ohio have a judicial process with one entity where local government, community stakeholders and affected landowners can work through a number of issues,” Arnold said.
The Farm Bureau, Arnold added, has farmer members “on both sides of the issue,” which requires them to serve in a role that adocates for the needs of all farmers.
Arnold also said the process is “unique in the country.”
“The rules are not as stringent in other states than in Ohio,” he said.
Voting members of the OPSB, which was developed in 1973, include the directors of six state agencies — the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Development Services Agency, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Department of Natural Resources — and one citizen, who must be an engineer.
According to Matt Butler, communications officer for the OPSB, a public hearing will be held in the area after the company files an application and OPSB investigates it. Butler said the public plays an important role in the process, which he called “time-tested.”
“It’s important for folks to know there is a process, that it is a time-tested process and that there are several ways for members of the community to participate,” Butler said.
But Jenifer Adams, who lives on Harbison Road and is an opponent of the project, is not so sure. For one, the community is not consulted until the process is nearly complete, rather than when an application is initially filed or pre-filing meetings begin.
“I don’t think it’s fair that the community isn’t taught about the process until after it’s rolling,” she said. “I don’t feel like the process respects the community.”
Adams is also skeptical about how much weight community comments actually carry in the process. But Adams will be speaking up nevertheless, because the alternative may be worse.
“If we don’t stand up and say anything, it will run right over us. We can’t be quiet.”
A review of the website shows that no recent applications to the OPSB for large-scale solar have been denied. Asked about that fact, Arnold said that it was because some groups end up withdrawing their application, or never file to begin with.
“For every one project that files, you probably see seven where they hold [the project,] or put it somewhere else,” he said.
In addition to testifying at the public hearing, some local entities can comment at the OPSB adjudicatory hearing and appeal a board decision. Local governments have an automatic right to such “intervention,” the OPSB website explains.
Reached for comment this week, Miami Township Trustee Don Hollister said that the township hasn’t yet decided if it will apply to formally “intervene.” But personally, he is “sorry to see” that the project is being considered in the area.
“In the long run, good cropland is going to be more valuable than solar panels,” Hollister said.
Hollister was also critical of the process, which he sees as antithetical to Ohio’s home rule philosophy, because it discounts the interests of communities. Local zoning regulations do not apply to such projects, for example.
“The power siting board model is to take local control away,” Hollister said.
Environmental issues considered
How the company will manage weeds, deal with rainwater runoff and return the land to farming are a few of the issues considered during the OPSB process, according to Arnold. They are also among the concerns of some neighbors.
When it comes to water management, the companies need to understand their projects are “part of a larger watershed,” Arnold said.
“You are impacting farmers above you in the watershed, as well as below you,” he said.
For instance, drainage systems that use buried field tiles must be maintained, Arnold explained. But neighbors have questioned how that may be possible with solar piles slated to be buried five to seven feet into the ground.
Weeds proliferating under and around the panels is another area of concern, which Arnold says is addressed in the OPSB process. It is also already regulated.
“We have noxious weed control that all farmers adhere to in the state,” Arnold said.
At other sites in Ohio, solar companies have been required to create pollinator habitats near the panels and along fencing by planting certain flowering plants.
Harf noted that those requirements can actually improve the ecosystem from its current use to grow commodity crops.
“It’s actually good for wildlife and the ecosystem,” she said of such plantings.
But neighbors have raised concerns about such plantings in practice, and argued that it’s likely that large amounts of herbicides will need to be used to keep down noxious weeds.
“Pollinator [plantings] are a good idea, but some things are easier said than done. Ohio is filled with weeds,” Adams said.
When it comes to returning the land to agriculture, Arnold explained that a decommissioning plan is required from the company.
“Those plans have to be in place before construction begins,” he said.
Companies must also post a bond to pay for decommissioning, in case they go bankrupt, Arnold said. In the end, solar fields are more likely to be returned to farmland than industrial parks, Arnold argued.
A land trust perspective
Another group interested in the possible environmental impact of the project is the Tecumseh Land Trust. The local land trust looks to continue to preserve farmland in that area as part of a citizen effort that dates back more than 50 years.
Several properties now leased for the solar array were originally part of the “country commons” around Glen Helen Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. That plan, to buffer those natural areas with protected farmland, dates back to the 1960s, Magaw said.
“It was to protect the natural resource and to preserve that rural feel,” Magaw said of the effort.
Since that time, some area farms were permanently preserved in partnership with the land trust, and cannot be used for solar.
“You can’t do it on a property with a conservation easement because that land use does not really benefit the soil and water conservation,” she said.
Another concern for the local nature preserves is “habitat fragmentation” because of the need to erect fences around the arrays, according to Chris Welter, an Antioch Miller Fellow working for TLT.
“The wildlife that come from the Glen and John Bryan won’t be able to move across the farmland as easily,” Welter explained.
As for runoff concerns for the Little Miami River and its tributaries, Welter noted the dramatic increase in impervious surfaces planned, from gravel driveways to the panels themselves, from which rain will “fly off pretty fast,” he said. If turf grass is planted under the panels, drainage could be even worse.
“Turf grass is like green concrete — it’s not highly pervious,” Welter said.
TLT is reaching out to farms to pursue a conservation easement rather than sign their property up for a 43-year lease for the solar project. They also have funding to help area farmers improve their conservation practices.
However, the land trust can’t compete financially with the current offer of $1,000 per year per acre; a conservation easement comes with a one-time payment of between $1,000 to $2,500 per acre in the area, Magaw said.
Taking a step back?
Large-scale solar is relatively new in the state, coming on the heels of a rapid price drop for solar and in a state well positioned to accommodate new electricity production.
The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 70% over the last decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. As a result, utility-scale solar projects are competitive with other forms of generation, such as coal, according to the group.
Arnold explained that Ohio is a prime location for such projects because it is part of a 13-state transmission network, which includes large east coast cities and Chicago, and also is a large energy user.
“Ohio uses a lot of energy, but those circuits have additional room for generation,” he said.
Though large-scale solar is new in Ohio, Arnold is confident that the OPSB process is sound because it takes into account the perspectives of a wide group of stakeholders. In addition, the urgency of tackling climate change means that solar energy is desperately needed, especially in Ohio, the third largest coal-consuming state in the nation.
But Adams is not so sure about the pace of change, especially since the tradeoffs with highly productive farmland are not being considered.
“Our state doesn’t have best practices established,” she said. “We should not be sacrificing farmland — fertile soil — for a project like this.”
Those best practices might include a way to prioritize brownfields rather than farmland for solar development, added Welter, of the land trust. Such practices are now common in places like Germany, he said, where a large percentage of solar is located on rooftops and other built surfaces.
Because of how new large-scale solar is to Ohio, Welter and others interviewed believe the state should take a step back and develop those best practices. And while there are numerous studies on the impact of large-scale solar on wildlife and water, much of it is from more arid environments.
“This is so new, and a lot is unknown,” Welter said.
For more information, visit the Ohio Power Siting Board at http://www.opsb.ohio.gov, Citizens for Greene Acres at https://citizensforgreeneacres.org and the Tecumseh Land Trust at http://tecumsehlandtrust.org.