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Testimony for Greene County solar project lasts late into the night

A packed Greene County Expo Center during the public hearing for the Kingwood Solar Project
Chris Welter
/
WYSO
A packed Greene County Expo Center during the public hearing for the Kingwood Solar Project

Last night (November 15, 2021) over a hundred people turned out at the Greene County Fairgrounds Expo Center for a public hearing on a proposed local solar farm. The meeting wrapped up just around midnight—after nearly six hours of public testimony.

Residents sign sheets expressing support or opposition for the Kingwood Solar Project
Chris Welter
Residents sign sheets expressing support or opposition for the Kingwood Solar Project

It was a chance for residents to speak in front of representatives of the Ohio Power Siting Board. That’s the public agency that will vote to approve or deny the Kingwood solar project. Board staff at the hearing said the number of people who came out to testify was large for a utility scale solar project, and the length of the public comment period was the longest, or nearly the longest, they'd seen.

Kingwood Solar is a 1,500 acre solar farm under development by a company called Vesper Energy. If approved, panels and electricity infrastructure would be installed on land in Cedarville, Miami and Xenia townships. The project's backers say the solar field could create enough energy to power around 50,000 homes. The company has already negotiated leases with local landowners who will receive annual payments for the use of their land if the project is approved.

There is organized opposition to the project. A group called Citizens for Greene Acres formed in 2019.

Many of the people who spoke at the meeting wore large stickers that said “I OPPOSE.” And there was often applause after testimony against the project.

A sign in the crowd at the public hearing for the Kingwood solar project
Chris Welter
A sign in the crowd at the public hearing for the Kingwood solar project

The reasons for opposition were wide-ranging: a dispatcher from the county sheriff’s office raised concerns about copper thieves targeting the element-rich facility. One person said they were worried farm cats would be run over by construction workers. And one man claimed his father’s fatal heart attack was due, in part, to stress from the pressure of deciding whether or not to lease his land.

Residents against the project also entered maps and pictures of tornado damage into the record.

But, in general, most residents were concerned about the aesthetics of the panels and taking farmland out of production. They also raised questions about how the project will be decommissioned when its lifespan is over and if the corporation funding the project has the communities’ best interests in mind.

Kyle Shelton was the last resident to testify. He lives in Cedarville, directly adjacent to the proposed project. He is against it.

“As you can see from the showing tonight, this is a strong and passionate community. But as strong as we are, as organized as we are, there's one fact that remains constant: we are severely under-matched in this fight. We cannot contend with the money, time and resources this large company brings to the process," he said. "That's the purpose of the government. It’s to level the playing field and ensure the actions of a few don't negatively impact society as a whole, like when it comes to a 175 megawatt industrial-scale solar facility.”

Ohio Power Siting Board members Mary Mertz (Ohio Department of Natural Resources director) and Jenifer French (Chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) listen to testimony at the Kingwood Solar Project public hearing
Chris Welter
Ohio Power Siting Board members Mary Mertz (Ohio Department of Natural Resources director) and Jenifer French (Chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) listen to testimony at the Kingwood Solar Project public hearing

People in favor of the project, on the other hand, said it would be good financially for local landowners, whose margins from farming the land for crops was thin. They also argued that taking the land out of production for the life of the project (the leases last for thirty to forty years) will be good for the soil and give it a chance to rest. Some who testified talked about the importance of the transition to renewable energy and the job opportunities the project would create for construction workers and electricians.

Dylan Stickney is a development manager for Vesper Energy. He said after the meeting that there are numerous benefits to utility-scale solar projects.

“These projects at a high level are a step in the right direction in transitioning our energy mix," he said. "I also think, locally, it certainly has an immense tax incentive for what little municipal services that it requires, not to mention the revenue stability and diversification that it can provide the certain farmers and landowners that are willing to participate.”

Another hearing will take place in Columbus next month. At that meeting, lawyers for various stakeholder groups will be able to make their case for and against the project as well.

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