In rural Ohio, the energy transition runs into a ditch
Resistance to renewable energy is growing in America’s farm country.
Mark Schein sings from the back row, aware that many of the people in the other pews view him as their enemy.
His wife, Toni, stands by his side, but the rows around them are all empty.
The hymn at this May service, backed by a pipe organ, is “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” about perseverance in the face of great challenges.
Mark is a retired farmer, a parent, a grandparent and part of a family that has attended this church, Williamsport United Methodist, since its construction in 1900. His offense in the eyes of many in this community is that he signed a lease with a developer that wants to build a solar array, one of five solar projects in the area that opponents say will drive down property values and turn a pastoral landscape into a toxic industrial site.
“I don’t have very many neighbors talk to me anymore,” he said.
Solar power is an essential part of dealing with the threat of climate change, but this proposal has inspired intense opposition from people who view solar as a threat to their idea of home. Instead of cheering a boost to the tax base and to farmers’ incomes, the critics see an invader that will make the place they love unrecognizable, and they see supporters of solar, even if they are friends and neighbors, as adversaries.
The solar opponents include the Barnes family, who are seated together on the opposite side in some of the only pews that are close to full. It was a Barnes who printed and helped to distribute hundreds of signs that say, “No Industrial Solar Plants on Farmland.”
“They’ve been putting up road signs, and articles in the paper, you know, just like we were the devils of the earth,” Mark said.
The Scheins and the Barneses don’t speak much anymore, but they can’t avoid crossing paths on a regular basis.
The divisions in Williamsport are important not because they are unusual but because they are common. Rural communities are increasingly rising up to oppose renewable energy, as shown in a 2021 study by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Also, a team at MIT wrote this year about 53 renewable energy projects across the country that were delayed or blocked, finding that many of the same objections arise over and over, about aesthetics, safety and property values.
Among the other examples: In Indiana, more than a dozen counties have passed rules to stop construction of new wind farms because of concerns about overdevelopment and health issues; in Nevada, residents are campaigning against solar projects in the desert just west of Las Vegas, citing the potential damage to native plants and animals; and Virginia has become an epicenter of opposition to solar power, with high-profile fights like one against a project in Spotsylvania.
The conflict is one of many urban-rural divides, in which rural areas dominated by Republicans are being asked to transform their landscapes to make electricity that will mainly serve cities dominated by Democrats.
The opposition often begins with a gut-level fear that solar or wind power is going to harm the look and feel of home, and then gets supercharged as people read and repeat talking points popularized by Donald Trump and others about how renewable energy is unreliable and dangerous. This is not to say that all the opponents are Republicans and that all the talking points are incorrect, only that there is a partisan sheen and a dearth of fact-checking.
And the tone of the debate often reflects the way Trump has changed what’s acceptable public discourse, with attacks that are more personal.
If nearly every renewable energy proposal turns into a political and legal quagmire, then there is little hope that the United States can make the energy transition needed to address climate change.
Viewed as a villain
Mark signed his lease three years ago, when the developer was putting together the land to propose the project. The lease payments would be five times what he earns from renting out the land to someone to farm it. He saw the income as a way to provide for his family for decades, even after he is gone.
Late last fall, he began to sense that a switch had flipped in the community, soon after the developer began to apply for a state permit. For the first time, people knew how large the project was going to be—about 2,700 football fields—and that it was going to be visible from dozens of houses occupied by people who had not leased their land.
The Barneses and several other prominent farm families chose not to lease their land because of concerns that the panels would change the look and feel of the place, and a reluctance to remove land from crop production. They organized an opposition campaign. Next came the anti-solar signs and a Facebook page for the local opposition group.
For Mark, it felt strange for others to say that this shift in the landscape was too much, because he had watched a lifetime of change. He grew up at a time when just about every farm was small and most farm families were large. He saw how a few people bought out the others to put together megafarms.
When so many others left over the decades, he had stayed on his relatively small 250 acres and in the house built by his great-great-grandfather in the 1870s. And now he was the villain. To hear the opponents say it, the people who signed leases were either greedy for supporting a harmful project, or stupid for not realizing the harm.
He heard some of this second-hand, but some was to his face or in voicemails.
The conflict has been especially hard on Toni, a retired dental hygienist, who, like him, knows just about everybody in the town of about 1,000.
The clash has seeped into the most personal of places, like church. One of Mark’s fondest memories is when he was six and the church had a chicken dinner in which the “church ladies,” as he calls them, tried to outdo each other with chicken they had raised on their farms, homemade egg noodles, potatoes and gravy.
“God it was good,” he said.
Back then, the church was nearly full most Sundays. Lately, there are about 30 people most weeks in a space that could hold more than 120.
Up until December, Mark and Toni were joined at church by their son, George, a lawyer and the 2000 valedictorian of the local high school. George had left Williamsport for college and his career and then moved back, with his husband and their daughter. He wanted to be close to family.
Right before Christmas, George abruptly quit the church choir and stopped attending services. He said it was because of the hostility he felt from other parishioners who would talk at church events about their opposition to the solar project.
Some weeks, Mark doesn’t go either because of the same discomfort that George felt.
That often leaves Toni, who wouldn’t miss Sunday service for anything, standing and singing by herself.
“A Legacy for Generations to Come”
Williamsport is a one-stoplight village along Deer Creek on the south end of Pickaway County. It could be a bedroom community for Columbus, which is less than 40 miles away, except that the shortest routes to the city are a maze of country roads that few people would want to drive on a daily basis.
The village suffers from decades of underinvestment, including a sewer system that is badly overextended. The regional fire department, which is based in the village, has long needed a new building and would like a new fire truck, but local funding has only allowed for short-term fixes until this year, when voters approved a ballot measure for a new building.
The closest thing to a town gathering place may be Petit’s, a gas station and grocery store with a lunch counter. The only bar is Dawg Ugly, near the Masonic Lodge.
EDF Renewables, a subsidiary of a large energy company based in France, has proposed the Chipmunk Solar Project, which would be the second-largest solar array in Ohio, with 400 megawatts, on land that includes parts of the Schein farm. The plan is now before the Ohio Power Siting Board for a permit review that will likely last until late this year or early 2023, a process that will take into account whether the community wants the project.
“Our project offers the community a significant economic benefit that will create a legacy for generations to come, while providing hundreds of jobs to local workers and the capacity to power 75,000 homes with clean, homegrown energy,” said Nicholas Lucania, project developer for EDF, in an email.
Most of the jobs would be during the construction phase, followed by eight long-term jobs to maintain the plant. The project would pay $3 million per year for leases with landowners, and a projected $3.6 million per year in taxes, most of which would go to public schools, with the rest going to local governments. (For perspective, the Westfall Local School District, based in Williamsport, has an annual budget of $18.6 million.)
The Chipmunk project is one of five in the county, with 1,054 megawatts that are in various stages of regulatory approval and construction. Developers are attracted to the region’s flat land and easy access to interstate power lines, making this one of the state’s hotbeds for potential projects. If all are completed, the local solar arrays would contribute a projected $9 million per year in taxes.
Opponents say that solar developers cannot be trusted to deliver on financial benefits, and that the community already has the resources it needs to provide for residents.
“Emotions Are High on Both Sides”
The closing hymn is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” When it’s done, three generations of Barneses make their way outside to their trucks and SUVs. They pass within a few feet of the Scheins, their neighbors and friends for decades, with neither side acknowledging the other.
The Barneses all head in the same direction to a farmhouse off of Pherson Pike. Sunday dinner, which takes place at about noon, is a family tradition so entrenched that nobody needs to put it on their calendar.
The vehicles rumble up a gravel driveway that is a half-mile long, with fields on both sides. At the end is a one-and-a-half story white house and several barns and outbuildings.
The home belongs to Tom and Karla Barnes, a retired farmer and a retired high school math teacher.
They have four children, all of whom are pursuing entrepreneurial ventures related to farming. Three of the four—Justin, Isaac and Becky—-live within a mile or two of each other, and are helping to lead the opposition to the solar project. (The fourth, Molly, lives in Iowa where she farms with her husband.)
Justin, the person behind the yard signs, and his wife, Adrienne, arrive with their four teenage children. In addition to farming corn and soybeans on the shared family land, Justin and Adrienne are building a vacation rental business by renovating old barns into luxury accommodations. They have one project completed, which rents for about $500 per night, and are working on others.
Adrienne runs the local Facebook group opposing the project, which has more than 1,000 members. This is not her and Justin’s first foray into activism. A few years ago, they were among the leaders in a successful campaign to fight a proposed natural gas power plant in the area. They opposed the plant because they didn’t want to see an industrial energy project built on farmland—a version of their argument against solar.
Isaac and his wife Jayne arrive with their four children, who range in age from elementary to high school. Their family business is Honey Run Farm, a thriving producer of honey and beeswax candles for boutique grocery stores, farmers markets and mail order. Isaac and two employees manage the beekeeping while Jayne and two other employees handle the retail side.
Becky, whose married name is Tilley, arrives with her preschool-age son and 2-year-old daughter. Becky and her husband run Tilley Farmstead, which grows organic produce and sells it in restaurants and farmers markets. The vegetable plate that morning includes fresh-picked radishes that Karla warns are “kind of spicy.”
Karla has two big pans of lasagna in the oven, plus hot and cold side dishes on the stove and counter. If anyone asks if they can help, she assures them that she’s got it all under control. A grandchild plays the piano in the next room, picking out the tune to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” followed by bits of other songs.
In his office off of the living room, Tom has a hand-drawn map of the family’s land, color coded to differentiate when each piece of the ever-expanding holdings were bought, and labeled with the price per acre at the time. It is the story of a family that arrived in this region in the 1950s without much, and has built something.
He also has a hand-drawn map showing all the drainage tile his family has laid in the land, a network of plastic pipes that helps to draw water away from areas that are the most flood-prone. The pipes connect to a series of mains that flow into the nearby creek, with several neighboring farms connected to each other and the same mains.
One of his biggest worries about the solar project is that the developer will damage the drainage tile network during the installation of thousands of posts for mounting the panels. The developer could crack or sever pipes, which could affect neighboring farms because the systems are interconnected. (EDF says in its project application that it has mapped the tile networks to avoid damage, and will pay to fix any damage that results from the company’s actions.)
The family gathers in the dining room around a table custom-made in Ohio’s Amish country to comfortably seat up to 14. They join hands and say grace, and then Karla and Becky take charge of dishing up the lasagna.
Karla spends much of the meal talking with her oldest grandson, who is about to graduate from the high school where she once taught. He is heading to Ohio University, which is about 70 miles away, to study business. His latest project is to build a candy vending machine using a 3-D printer—just for fun.
The family doesn’t talk about politics, a sore subject since this group has about a 50-50 split between those who tend to vote for Republicans and those who tend to vote for Democrats.
They also don’t talk about the solar project, at least not until after dessert. Karla and Becky serve strawberry shortcake, with fresh strawberries from Becky’s farm. They sing “Happy Birthday” to Karla, whose birthday is in a few days.
The Barneses and other opponents say that they don’t oppose solar power. They just don’t think it should be built on productive agricultural land. Instead, developers should look to former industrial sites, roofs of large commercial buildings and the desert.
But the country’s need for renewable energy is so large that there is little choice but to build a lot of solar on farmland, according to researchers. And, it costs less to build solar on farmland than many other settings because rural areas have vast areas of flat land.
The country would need 1,500 gigawatts of solar by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide, under a scenario examined in the Net-Zero America report issued last year by Princeton University—more than 20 times the solar that is now in place.
That’s a lot, but the new solar development would use a land area equivalent to less than 1 percent of the country’s crop and pasture land, according to the report.
After the dishes are cleared, the adults go out to the front porch while the children vanish to go play on the farm. Here is the first mention of the solar project all day.
“You have to have a little common sense,” Adrienne said. “Could I sell my house and property for the same amount if it sat next to a giant field of solar? Absolutely not.”
The panels would be just north of Justin and Adrienne’s vacation rentals, which they fear would turn a rural getaway into a close-up view of an industrial zone.
Some of their concern is based on visits to other solar projects that are under construction. They often use the example of the Hillcrest project in Appalachian Ohio, which is half the size of the Chipmunk project. They also can see the construction work taking place just south of Williamsport at the Yellowbud project.
In both cases, the construction phase is ugly, with a loss of topsoil and trees, and areas of flooding that indicate damage to drainage tile, turning pristine land into a mud pit, they say.
Since large-scale solar development is new to Ohio, there aren’t good examples of projects that have been up and running for years, with buffer shrubs and trees planted to shield neighbors from the view, and with tax money flowing to local governments.
But there are plenty of examples of projects in the middle of their ugliest phase.
Justin doesn’t say much that day, but he’s the one who has worked the hardest to fight the project. He printed hundreds of yard signs and hired a lawyer to represent the opponents before the Ohio Power Siting Board.
He argues that the loss of farmland would be a devastating shock to the local economy, with less land for farmers to rent and less business for the local companies that sell seed, fertilizer and equipment. The result, he says, would be a loss of local jobs that would be much more than the eight full-time employees that Chipmunk has said it will hire to maintain the project.
He is skeptical of EDF’s claims about financial benefits, part of his view that large energy companies cannot be trusted.
“They’re slippery,” he said, about EDF.
He has made this case in living rooms across the community, a message that carries weight because people know him and know his family.
He disputes the idea that the campaign against solar has divided the community. Instead, he says it’s brought people together, with neighbors getting to know each other as they organize against the project.
But how does he view the Scheins and the other supporters of the project? Justin says he still thinks of the Scheins as friends, while acknowledging the current strife has made things awkward.
His siblings and parents say the same thing. The families have been neighbors ever since the Barneses arrived in this region in the 1950s. They went to church and school together, hung out together. They even intermarried; Mark and Toni Schein’s daughter is married to a Barnes cousin.
“Emotions are high on both sides,” Adrienne said.
Tracy Wholf, coordinating climate producer at ABC News, contributed to this story.
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