Champaign County Solar Farm Hearing Reveals Community Divisions
Open Roads Renewables has proposed a 144 megawatt solar project for Adams township in northwest Champaign County
Last week there was a public hearing for a utility scale solar facility in Champaign County. The project, called Clearview Solar, would occupy almost twelve hundred acres of private land. It is being developed by a Texas based company, Open Road Renewables, and if it gets fully up and running, it could provide up to 144 megawatts of clean energy.
The Ohio Power Siting Board is the state agency that decides whether to approve or deny the construction of large, new energy projects. The application for Clearview Solar was submitted to the board in December of 2020. On Tuesday night last week, the board held a virtual public hearing to take testimony from people affected by the proposed project. Witnesses were sworn in by an administrative law judge who oversaw the proceeding and were given about five minutes to provide testimony. An attorney from the company and Champaign County were also present.
William Seiders owns eighty acres right next to the proposed solar farm. Currently, he rents it to a local farmer. He says he turned down an offer to lease his land for the project.
"Well, my grandparents bought this farm in 1943 and I am the next generation of that. We have been farming this ground for all these years." He said, "I will not let it be used for a solar farm as long as I have breath in my body."
Local farmer Mike Pullins also testified. Pullins decided to lease about seven percent of his fourteen hundred acres for the project. Pullins sees it as a smart business move that will protect his family.
"Diversification has been part of our business model and it ensures our operation has steady income year after year," he said. "Our agricultural crops are impacted by weather, market forces, trade and many other unpredictable regulatory events."
Pullins also said the increased tax base from the project would benefit the entire community. His son, Kent Pullins, also testified in favor of the project. He and his wife do not live in Champaign County, but they did decide to lease land they own in the county for the project.
Close to a dozen other witnesses testified—some for and some against. Local residents who were against the project expressed concern about the alternate use of prime farmland. Landowners who will be leasing their land testified that the vegetative cover that will be planted between the panels will be good for the soil and the environment in the long run. One landowner said he thought the effect will be similar to the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program where the government pays farmers to take their land out of agricultural production.
A representative from the local chapter of the electrical workers union said building Clearview Solar would create somewhere between two and three hundred temporary jobs for electrical workers alone.
Urbana resident Julie Johnson testified against the project. Johnson is a retired Bank One executive who has been active in the movement against utility scale wind operations for over a decade, according to a 2014 Columbus Dispatch article. She is also a member of the Wildlife, Energy, and Community Coalition—an organization that exists "to protect wildlife and to protect natural resources, as well as human communities, from adverse impacts from industrial renewable energy."
She said her primary objection with Clearview Solar was that the project is inconsistent with Champaign County's Comprehensive Land Use plan and that the reversion of the leased land back to agricultural use is "pure speculation."
An evidentiary hearing for the project is scheduled for July 1.
Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.