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New Bill Adds Hurdles To Solar Development And Stirs Up Controversy In Ohio

A view from the outside of the Hillcrest Solar Farm in Brown County. A line of small trees has been planted between the panels and a grassy field.
Chris Welter
/
WYSO
A view from the outside of the Hillcrest Solar Farm in Brown County. A line of small trees has been planted between the panels and a grassy field.

There is a bill that recently passed in Ohio that has stirred up a lot of controversy around renewable energy development. Senate Bill 52 (SB52) requires all future utility-scale solar and wind farms in Ohio to be approved by county commissioners in addition to the state's power siting board. It also gives county commissioners the power to restrict certain areas in their counties from renewable energy development.

At its core, SB52 is about how Ohio approaches its energy future. It was crafted by Ohio Republicans who have historically been hesitant about adoption of renewable energy like wind and solar. Republican State Senator Bill Reineke, who represents seven rural counties in northwest Ohio, was one of the primary sponsors of the bill.

"I think the best thing that we've done with this is make this bill about good planning," he said.

Reineke said he was hearing from his constituentsOhio that they were concerned about losing farmland to renewable energy development. They were also concerned about the decommissioning of the solar farms after the companies' leases with landowners were completed. SB52 now requires solar developers to update their decommissioning plans every five years.

“At what point should we be concerned in Ohio that our rural landscape will go from no longer agriculture, but solar and wind?" he asked during a phone interview in August.

SB52 gives more power to local communities to decide where solar farms can be built and that’s making for some strange bedfellows who agree on parts of the bill.

Krista Magaw is the recently retired Executive Director of The Tecumseh Land Trust — a nonprofit that works to preserve farmland and other natural areas in Southwest Ohio. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Ohio Environmental Council.

Magaw said she sees a lot of good in SB52. She said she has been concerned about the boom of utility scale solar development on farmland in Ohio. Specifically, she said, utility-scale solar developments have been made without enough community input.

“It's been alarming the way people have been informed," Magaw said. "The way the power siting board works and the way county planning works and township planning works, you've really got to get ahead of the curve.”

There are now close to 40 solar farms under consideration in the state. Some will be grandfathered in but others could be subject to the new regulatory hurdles that SB52 presents.

Bill Behling works for Innergex — a multinational Canadian company that is developing several large-scale solar projects in the state. He says that SB52 could have a chilling effect on the solar energy boom in Ohio.

“We're spending all of our capital, all of our own funds, our shareholder funds to develop the projects. It's our money at risk." Behling said, "There are 49 other states where we could not be subject to that risk.”

Neil Waggoner is from Ohio's Sierra Club Chapter and shares the concern that the bill will slow renewable energy development. Waggoner said in an interview that he is worried about climate change and that it is time to get as much renewable power onto the grid as possible.

“If Ohio is closing the door on renewables, we'll lag behind as other states pick up that slack and put more renewables into the ground, put more solar panels and wind turbines on the ground," Waggoner said. "We'll just be buying that power from other states.”

Opponents like Waggoner also point to the fact that the bill does not apply to non-renewable energy facilities like natural gas pipelines and coal plants. In fact, House Bill 201, which goes into effect at the end of this month, explicitly prevents local governments from limiting their use of natural gas.

But Reineke, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said there is a disconnect between the people advocating for renewable energy in the state and the people that actually live in the communities where the solar farms are being built.

“So my question is, do you have them in your community? And that's a very, very valid question, because people from the urban communities are coming into rural America telling us this is what's best for all of us.”

However, as it stands, less than one half of one percent of farmland in Ohio would be covered in panels if all the projects in the state’s pipeline were built.

Senate Bill 52 goes into effect in October.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.