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Residential Solar Industry Expected To Keep Growing In Ohio

Brett Henderson of Yellow Springs Solar stands in front of a home and a garage where he installed solar panels
Chris Welter
Brett Henderson of Yellow Springs Solar stands in front of a home and a garage where he installed solar panels

Lower prices, renewed pro-solar federal policies, and fears of winter power outages could lead to a boom in Ohio's rooftop solar industry

This week, local residents will have a chance to weigh in on a new solar power facility. Kingwood Solar would generate enough power for approximately 34,000 homes each year and would cover hundreds of acres of farmland in Greene County.

Kingwood is one of the many utility scale solar developments that have been proposed in Ohio in recent years. One Hardin County solar development entered service this winter. Others are in various phases of the Ohio Power Siting Board's permitting process. Utility scale solar developments raise some questions about the future of energy in Ohio. What is the best use of prime farmland? Is utility scale solar the quickest way to get renewable energy on the grid?

This year, WYSO is taking a close look at solar power’s potential in the state and its effect on the Miami valley in a four part series of reports. The series starts off with a look at residential — or rooftop — solar.

Yellow Springs resident Andy Holyoke stood outside of his home and looked up at the solar panels on his roof. His wife, Beth, is an artist. She designed a border around some of the panels with stucco sculptures of fish. It looks like the fish are swimming through an ocean of the dark panels.

A border made of stucco fish on the awning where Yellow Springs resident Andy Holyoke has some of his solar panels
Chris Welter
A border made of stucco fish on the awning where Yellow Springs resident Andy Holyoke has some of his solar panels.

It cost Holyoke about $15,000 to install his solar panels five years ago. He said they cut his monthly utility bill by about $200. There are federal tax creditsfor people who have photovoltaic solar systems on their homes but Holyoke said, as a retiree, that he didn't make enough the year he installed the panels to use the credit.

Holyoke said he knows it will take a while for the panels to pay themselves off through energy bill savings, but he didn’t do it to save money. He’s devoted his life to having a small environmental footprint. He has worked as a contractor building passive straw-bale homesthroughout southwestern Ohio—oftentimes with solar panels on the roof. He said that he bikes or walks almost everywhere he goes, even in the winter.

“It doesn't make me feel good to use fossil fuels if I can avoid it," he said. "If I didn't have a family, I'd probably turn the thermostat way down and wear more clothes.”

Andy Holyoke in front of the solar installation at his property in Yellow Springs
Chris Welter
Andy Holyoke in front of the solar installation at his property in Yellow Springs

Historically, rooftop solar like Holyoke’s has been too expensive for a lot of people. It was mainly reserved for affluent home-owners who could afford the upfront costs. Research has also shown that subsidies to encourage rooftop solar have disproportionately flowed to higher-income communities.

But that’s starting to change.

Dr. Gilbert Michaud is a professor at Ohio University. He's been studying the renewable energy transition for over a decade.

Michaud said Ohio has been lagging behind when it comes to renewable energy. There have been very few state-wide policy incentives for rooftop solar. Also, the scandal-tainted House Bill 6 ended Solar Renewable Energy Credits (or SRECs). SRECs were given to rooftop solar producers for every 1000 kilowatt hours of energy they produced. The homeowners were then able to sell those certificates, for as much as $300 a piece, to their utility to help the company meet renewable energy standards.

But Michaud predicts rooftop solar will become a more significant part of Ohio’s energy portfolio in the coming years despite policy decisions at the statehouse. He said it's becoming more accessible to middle and low-income households because of federal policy that creates leasing and loan programs to decrease upfront costs.

"It's a smart decision in terms of reducing your electricity bill," he said. "And It's a smart decision in terms of doing the right thing for the environment and helping to reduce pollution. “

And it's is not only a good thing for homeowners, Michaud said.

"It's also a smart thing from an economic and workforce development perspective where, especially at the residential level, we're helping support local contractors to be in our communities.”

Right now there are over two hundred solar companies operating in Ohio. They employ more than 7,000 people, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association. First Solar in Perrysburg, for example, is one of the largest manufacturers of photovoltaic solar panels in North America. Ohio is in the top ten for solar jobs in the United States—and those job numbers are expected to increase.

Brett Henderson is one of the people creating jobs in the solar industry. He’s the founder ofYellow Springs Solar and has been in the solar business for more than a decade. He has installed solar panels all over southwestern Ohio.

Outside one of his solar installations, a satisfied customer walked by with his dog and shared his thoughts.

"Hey green is great and let's reduce our carbon footprint," the man said.

During peak season in the summer, Henderson said he will employ up to fifteen people. He said there is a boom and bust, cyclical nature to the solar business. However, with the new Biden administration, the costs of solar panels dropping, and the end of the pandemic on the horizon, Henderson is optimistic a boom may be coming.

Henderson said that a number of his previous clients, including Holyoke, wanted solar because of their environmental values. But some of his newer clients are in it for slightly different reasons.

With the widespread winter power outages this year people are looking to solar for self-reliance and lower electricity costs, Henderson said.

“So I'm starting to get those inquiries from people that really don't care about the climate so much," Henderson said. "They just see their utility bills rising and they want to do their best to stick it to the utility. A lot of them get really excited about getting that bill down to $0.”

Henderson has, of course, been a longtime advocate for people putting panels on their roofs and generating their own power. He said that he really likes the way rooftop solar gets double use out of an existing structure.

Henderson said that he thinks in the coming years, rooftop solar will only become more attractive as solar prices continue to come down and people look to save money, prepare for power outages and take action on climate change.

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

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO. Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.