In the end, solar opponents prevail in Williamsport, Ohio

This article was originally published on Inside Climate News. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Local opponents have succeeded in killing plans for a solar array in rural Ohio that will now become one of the largest renewable energy projects in the country that has been put on hold due to opposition from nearby residents and their elected leaders.

Mark Schein, a farmer whose land near Williamsport would have hosted part of the project, learned of the change in plans Thursday in a brief phone call with the developer, EDF Renewables. The company decided to withdraw its proposal to build the 400-megawatt Chipmunk Solar project in the face of a grassroots campaign and in light of state regulators’ recent rejection of projects that have local opposition.

Chipmunk will be the second largest solar panel in the United States to be submitted for regulatory approval and then withdrawn due to local opposition within at least two years. The largest was Battle Born Solar, an 850-megawatt project in Nevada that was canceled by its developer last year, according to a database maintained by research firm Wood Mackenzie.

PHOTO: Mark Schein stands at the edge of a field last week, a few miles from his farm in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Mark Schein stands at the edge of a field last week, a few miles from his farm in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News

“I’m disappointed, and there’s a couple of people here in the community that I don’t think I’ll talk to for the rest of my life,” Schein said, referring to neighbors who scuttled the project.

EDF confirmed its plans in a filing Thursday afternoon with the Ohio Power Siting Board and in a letter to Pickaway County government.

“While we were hopeful that the project would come to fruition, the nature of development activities, which are sometimes beyond our control, has forced us to make the difficult decision to no longer proceed,” the company wrote in the letter.

The opposition group said through its lawyer that it had no comment.

With the project’s demise, the community loses an estimated $3.6 million a year in tax revenue, most of which would have gone to public schools. Property owners who signed leases with EDF will forgo an estimated $3 million a year in rent payments, according to the company.

PHOTO: Mark and Toni Schein in their kitchen.  They are among the dozen or so landowners who have signed leases for the Chipmunk Solar project, a plan the developer is withdrawing in the face of local opposition.

Mark and Toni Schein in their kitchen. They are among the dozen or so landowners who have signed leases for the Chipmunk Solar project, a plan the developer is withdrawing in the face of local opposition.

Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News

Based on an expected life of 30 years, the cancellation means local governments in this small rural municipality will lose about $100 million.

Last year at this time, it wasn’t terribly difficult to imagine the Ohio Power Siting Board approving the proposal in time for construction to begin in 2023. At that point, the board had never rejected a solar project.

The outlook changed, largely due to efforts by local opponents who said solar power would harm the community by taking farmland out of production, reducing property values ​​and damaging land and water. Campaigning through yard signs and lobbying public officials, they succeeded in getting the county and township governments to pass resolutions opposing the project.

Meanwhile, the Power Siting Board deviated from its track record by rejecting a proposal near Lima, about 125 miles northwest of Williamsport. The October decision showed the board now saw opposition from local governments as grounds to vote against a plan, even if the application otherwise met all standards for approval.

The campaign in Williamsport, on the edge of the Columbus metro area, is one of many examples of growing opposition to renewable energy in rural America, a shift in attitudes that could make the transition to clean energy much more expensive and divisive, as each proposal threatens to turn into a protracted struggle.

Creates community bonds

Chipmunk was among the 15 or so largest solar projects to be developed in the Midwest, according to Wood Mackenzie, and it is now the largest in the region to be rejected or withdrawn.

Matthew Sahd, a solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie in New York, said Chipmunk’s cancellation is significant because of its size and because it is part of a pattern in Ohio of projects failing because of local opposition.

Chipmunk is the third Ohio project rejected or withdrawn since October; the other two, in the Dayton and Lima areas, were voted down by the Ohio Power Siting Board because of local opposition.

“It’s just come to a tipping point with the amount of projects that are being developed and the amount of counties that have been developed,” Sahd said.

Even with the problems in Ohio, the state remains a hotbed for solar development, and regulators have approved many more projects this year than they have rejected. Demand for solar power in the state is high due to companies like Amazon buying electricity to meet renewable energy use goals, and utilities striving to meet corporate goals or government requirements.

PHOTO: Developers have proposed or are in the process of building four utility-scale solar arrays near Williamsport, Ohio.

Developers have proposed or are in the process of building four utility-scale solar arrays near Williamsport, Ohio.

Credit: Paul Horn/Inside Climate News

“Ohio will definitely be a top 10 state for renewable energy deployment through 2030,” Sahd said. “It’s just going to be (a matter of) which developers can stand the test of time and create those community bonds early so their projects can come through.”

Rural culture, real estate issues

Opponents of the solar project got the result they wanted.

The group, called Pickaway County Citizens Against Industrial Solar on Farmland, ran a highly visible campaign, including farm signs throughout the area, T-shirts and a booth at the county fair.

Opponents were united around the idea that the county needs to preserve the culture of agriculture and jobs and that solar energy goes against that culture. They have a long list of details about why they believe solar is an unacceptable use of farmland, including concerns that solar is unsightly and will cause property values ​​to drop, and that the panels contain harmful substances that will leach into the ground and water and threatens human and animal health.

Opponents downplayed the revenue potential of the project, arguing that solar is an unreliable resource that could not be counted on to meet the developer’s tax projections, and that local governments and schools already had enough support.

“We do not need additional tax revenue,” said a letter from the group to the Power Siting Board.

PHOTO: The eastern village boundary of Williamsport, Ohio, on US 22. This community, with a population of about 1,000, is near two solar projects under construction, two that have been proposed and one whose proposal is now being withdrawn.

The eastern village limit of Williamsport, Ohio, on US 22. This community, with a population of about 1,000, is near two solar projects under construction, two that have been proposed and one whose proposal is now being withdrawn by the developer.

Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News

Opponents have also noted that most of the land for the solar projects is owned by estates and land trusts controlled by people who no longer live in the community. The Scheins, who have a relatively small 250 acres, are an exception because they still live on the land.

Supporters of the project have been frustrated by talk of property values ​​and health risks because much of the evidence for this comes from sources designed to stoke opposition to solar. The bulk of the research from universities and national laboratories has shown little effect on property values ​​and negligible health risks.

Supporters also lamented that the tax benefits received little discussion locally, as school officials chose not to take sides in the debate. The result, supporters said, is the loss of a once-in-a-generation windfall that could have lowered taxes while improving education.

After more than a year of campaigning, opponents dominated the argument.

Despite the outcome, Schein said he still feels he did the right thing in signing the lease, even with all the controversy it brought.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.

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