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Advocates expect a bright future for solar power in Ohio, though there may be hurdles

A man wearing a hardhat looks at a large solar panel in a field.
Yellowbud Solar Farm
Plant Manager at Yellowbud Solar Farm Allen Hull looks at one of the 775,000 solar panels at the 1,300-acre site near Yellowbud, Ohio.

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 is the plant manager at Yellowbud Solar Farm on Westfall Road. The 274-megawatt plant sits on about 1,300 acres of land about 50 miles south of Columbus. More than 775,000 thousand solar panels sit in neat rows, or arrays, that stretch in some directions as far as the eye can see.

Hull said he was “kind of a skeptic,” but he’s embraced solar energy.

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

National rankings put Ohio in the middle of the pack for solar energy.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association for solar power, ranks Ohio 22nd among the states and the District of Columbia as of midway through 2023. A February Forbes list of best and worst states for solar energy seats Ohio a bit lower at number 28.

SEIA reports 1.04% of the state’s electricity comes from solar energy, which powers around 176,000 homes. The report lists 89 solar manufacturers and 70 installers and developers in the state.

A burgeoning market

So how does Ohio stack up to its nearby Midwestern neighbors? Both the SEIA and Forbes rankings put Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin near Ohio in the 20s. Illinois ranks a little better with placement in the high teens.

But some projections anticipate solar power growing rapidly in the Midwest in the coming years. SEIA expects Ohio to add another 7,788 megawatts of production in the next five years.

“Ohio, which has a burgeoning non-residential solar market, has seen increased competition in the face of the state’s rising renewable portfolio standard goals,” reads SEIA’s description of Ohio’s solar market.

Operational since June, Yellowbud Solar Farm is the first in Ohio for developer National Grid Renewables, but it’s one of several in the state funded by investor Amazon.

The mega e-commerce company has 18 solar and wind projects that are operational or in the works in Ohio. Amazon's Head of Energy Nat Sahlstrom said that's part of the company’s plan to use only renewable energy by 2025.
“Renewable energy allows companies and businesses and communities to decarbonize their power supply,” Sahlstrom said.

Meta and Campbell Soup Company also have large solar projects in the state.

A man stands in front of solar panels with an umbrella.
Allie Vugrincic
National Grid Renewables Construction Manager Greg Courter holds an umbrella as it rains during a tour of Yellowbud Solar Farm on Thursday. The solar panels at Yellowbud produce energy anytime the sun is up - even when it's raining.

Rain and shine

Of course, it’s not always sunny in Ohio. Even as the Yellowbud team led a tour of its site last week, it began to drizzle – then pour. The group opened umbrellas and laughed alongside the rows of panels and the soft hum of the inverter.

But, despite the rain, National Grid Renewables' staff said the plant was still producing electricity. If the sun is up, it’s always producing electricity, Hull said.

While solar energy can be effective in Ohio, not every large solar project gets off the ground.

The Ohio Power Siting Board, which regulates the installation of energy infrastructure, rejected the Kingwood Solar project in Greene County in December 2022. The 175-megawatt project in Cedarville, Miami and Xenia townships would have had around 410,000 solar panels.

The Power Siting Board determined the project didn’t serve the public's 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.

The 16 people who spoke in favor of the project said it created an opportunity for participating farmers to diversify their income and pointed to the benefits of solar power as a clean, renewable energy.

After waiting several months for the Power Siting Board to grant a re-hearing, Kingwood appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. 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. Another state law prevents local communities from exerting the same power over fracking operations.

Dozens of rows of solar panels in a field are seen from above.
Yellowbud Solar Farm
Arrays of solar panels run across a field at Yellowbud Solar Farm near Yellowbud, Ohio.

Community solar

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.

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

“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 says 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,” he said.

A study requested by the Coalition for Community Solar Access and conducted by Ohio University found that a statewide community solar program could also generate more than $5.6 billion in revenue output and up to $409.5 million in local tax revenue over the lifetime of the project. Solar panels have a lifespan of about 25 to 30 years.

Amazon’s Sahlstrom says his company’s investment in renewable energy in Ohio has already brought a $1.6 billion economic boost to the state and created 3,500 jobs last year.

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

Hull, for his part, knows solar energy can be an adjustment, especially in rural communities like his. But he was happy to bust some myths about solar: he said solar panels don’t give off heat and don’t fry birds that fly by, they don’t produce toxic runoff, and they’re quiet – even the inverters don’t produce much noise.

“Yeah, it's a change,” Hull said. “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.”

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.