Local opponents have succeeded in killing plans for a solar array in rural Ohio that now becomes one of the largest renewable energy projects in the country canceled because of resistance 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 of 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 rejections of projects that have local opposition.
Chipmunk will be the second-largest solar array in the United States to have been submitted for regulatory approval and then withdrawn because of local opposition in at least two years.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 the research firm Wood Mackenzie.
"I’m disappointed, and there are a couple people here in the community I don’t think I’ll speak to for the rest of my life," Schein said, referring to neighbors who sunk the project.
EDF confirmed its plans in a filing Thursday afternoon with the Ohio Power Siting Board and in a letter to the Pickaway County government.
"While we were hopeful the project would come to fruition, the nature of development activities, which are sometimes out of our control, have forced us to make the difficult decision to no longer proceed," the company said in the letter.
The opposition group said through its attorney that it had no comment.
With the demise of the project, the community is losing a projected $3.6 million per year in tax revenue, most of which would have gone to public schools. Property owners who signed leases with EDF will forgo a projected $3 million per year in lease payments, according to the company.
Based on an anticipated lifespan of 30 years, the cancellation means local governments in this small, rural county stand to lose about $100 million.
Last year at this time, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the Ohio Power Siting Board would approve 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 because of the efforts of local opponents who said solar power would hurt the community by taking farmland out of production, reducing property values and damaging soil and water. They campaigned through yard signs and lobbying public officials, and they succeeded in getting the county and township governments to pass resolutions opposing the project.
At the same time, the Power Siting Board diverged from its track record by rejecting a proposal near Lima, about 125 miles northwest of Williamsport. The October decision showed the board now viewed the opposition of local governments as grounds for voting against a plan, even if the application otherwise met all standards for approval.
The campaign in Williamsport, on the outer fringe of the Columbus metro area, is one of many examples of a growing resistance 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 prolonged fight.
Creating community ties
Chipmunk was among the top 15 or so largest solar projects being 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 Wood Mackenzie solar analyst 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 to be 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 all just come to a tipping point with the amount of projects being developed and the amount of counties that have been developed," Sahd said.
Even with the problems in Ohio, the state remains a hotbed of solar development and regulators have approved many more projects this year than they’ve rejected. Demand for solar in the state is high because of companies like Amazon that are buying electricity to meet targets for renewable energy usage, and utilities that are aiming to meet corporate goals or government requirements.
"Ohio is going to definitely be a top 10 state for renewables buildout through 2030," Sahd said. "It's just going to be (a question of) which developers can stand the test of time and create those community ties early so that their projects can get through."
Rural culture, real estate concerns
Opponents of the solar project got the result they wanted.
The group, called Pickaway County Citizens Against Industrial Solar on Farmland, waged a highly visible campaign, including yard signs throughout the area, T-shirts and a booth at the county fair.
The opponents united around the idea that the county needs to preserve the culture and jobs of farming, and that solar is contrary to that culture. They have a long list of specifics as to why they believe solar is an unacceptable use for farmland, including concerns that solar is ugly and will lead to a drop in property values, and that the panels contain harmful substances that will leak into the ground and water and threaten the health of humans and animals.
The opponents downplayed the potential for income from the project, arguing that solar is an unreliable resource that couldn’t be counted on to meet the developer’s projections for taxes, and that local governments and schools already had adequate support.
"We do not need additional tax revenue," said a letter from the group to the Power Siting Board.
The opponents also have 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 since they still live on the land.
Supporters of the project have been frustrated with the talk of property values and risks to health because much of the evidence for this comes from sources that are designed to stoke opposition to solar. The bulk of research from universities and national labs has shown little effect on property values and negligible risks to health.
Supporters also lamented that the tax benefits got little discussion locally, as school officials chose not to take a side in the debate. The result, the 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, the opponents dominated the argument.
Despite the outcome, Schein said he still feels like he did the right thing in signing the lease, even with all the conflict it brought.
"I wouldn’t change a thing," he said.