Solar developers face danger after state officials recommended against granting them a permit to build a solar farm in Greene County capable of powering an estimated 34,000 homes per year.
Opposition from local governments, primarily concerned with the rural aesthetics of the area, outweighs the lease agreements signed by Kingwood Solar with landowners, payroll and tax benefits for locals, and clean electricity for the grid, according to the conclusions of the Ohio Power Siting Board staff.
Voting members of the OPSB are not required to heed the staff’s recommendation, although they normally do. There is no firm timeline for a decision.
Board staff members originally drafted their report last year recommending the green light for Kingwood Solar’s 175-megawatt application, according to testimony from an adjudicatory hearing. But on Oct. 28, 2021, the day before it was published, OPSB Executive Director Theresa White directed an employee to call local municipalities to determine her position on the project.
After the call that same day, the all-Republican Greene County Commission voted to pass a resolution declaring the solar farm “incompatible with the health, safety, and general welfare” of residents. Kingwood officials had engaged with the commission, but were not informed prior to the hearing and were unable to come forward and present their case. That resolution ultimately changed the OPSB staff’s recommendation from yes to no.
Kingwood officials said the practice of canvassing locals makes sense, but the timing is puzzling. Why wait until a day before a report is due? And why weren’t the developers informed of the vote?
“This certainly looks like a coordinated effort on the part of the OPSB to have a basis for denying the permit,” Juan Suarez, Kingwood’s director of development, said in an interview.
OPSB attorneys acknowledged the phone call to the county, saying in legal documents that it is “adequate and proper for the Board to consider local opposition” in its decision.
State law requires the OPSB to consider eight factors in applications. Kingwood met seven of them, according to OPSB staff. But given the committee’s vote, staff said the project does not “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”
Kingwood’s story shows how, despite a boom in solar generation in Ohio, resistance from state and local governments and the fervor of NIMBY continue to stymie projects and possibly freeze future investment.
It also underscores the ability of locals to thwart renewable projects, an ability that doesn’t apply to fossil fuels. In 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down Munroe Falls ordinances seeking to ban fracking, ruling that the state has “sole and exclusive authority” to regulate oil and gas wells.
Kingwood’s denial of the permit would cost the county $1.575 million annually in taxes. Kingwood officials estimated that they would hire 225 full-time employees over 16 months to build the project, creating a $20 million payroll. From there, he would employ four full-time, year-round employees who earn an average of about $111,000 a year, based on his application. That is not to mention the indirect economic benefits.
The project sits on 1,5000 acres of rural land in the boroughs of Miami, Xenia and Cedarville, including approximately half a mile from Governor Mike DeWine’s own backyard.
Kingwood is a project of Vesper Energy, a Texas-based renewable energy developer with projects across the country, including the 80-megawatt Nestlewood Solar project in Brown and Clermont counties. (That project had been delayed by the former OPSB chairman, who has since been accused of taking a $4.3 million bribe from FirstEnergy Corp.)
Both Kingwood and the OPSB agree that state law and the courts provide little guidance on what is in the “public interest.” OPSB staff interpreted the phrase narrowly: only local government opposition meets the standard. The section of the report does not mention the landowners who signed agreements with Kingwood or the global need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Planning for Kingwood began about five years ago, exempting it from recently passed state legislation giving county commissions veto power over utility-scale wind and solar projects. However, the OPSB said the legislation has “encouraged” locals to oppose the protected projects.
Just before Greene County passed its resolution, five residents voiced their support for the project and their opposition to the commission’s action. Union electrical workers and operational engineers highlighted the construction jobs promised by the project. Others, including some who leased land from Kingwood, emphasized the rights of landowners to do as they wish with their land and the need to pivot to renewable energy.
All three county commissioners voted in favor of the resolution, though all noted that they are not “against solar power.” Several mentioned that the project goes against the county’s use plan, which, as they noted, was only approved after the Kingwood developers applied for a permit. They said that the solar panels will ruin the natural aesthetics.
“I’m a strong believer in landowner rights, but your landowner rights don’t necessarily end at your property line,” Commissioner Richard Gould said at the hearing.
All three commissioners declined interview requests. In a statement, County Manager Brandon Huddleston defended the decision.
“The commissioners aren’t totally against solar installations, they just want to make sure they’re in the right places,” he said. “In this case, they don’t think it’s well placed. The area under consideration is well populated and growing. It is close to (and on the way to and from) several tourist attractions and scenic natural areas. They felt it would be a detriment to the local tourism economy and have a negative impact on the quality of life for nearby residents.”
Some 17 residents entered into leases with Kingwood, and several residents publicly expressed their support for the project. However, considerable local opposition arose at community meetings. A November 2021 public hearing drew 68 speakers for six hours, according to The Dayton Daily News, with the vast majority in opposition. Rather, Kingwood submitted to the OPSB letters of support for the project from 76 unionized workers in support of the project.
Kingwood also commissioned a recent survey from a Virginia-based firm that consults with Republican candidates and corporate clients. The pollsters interviewed 350 registered voters in Greene County. Of these, the majority (60%) had not heard of the Kingwood project. Respondents indicated their support for Kingwood by a margin of 2 to 1 when framed around the project’s tax benefits to the county.
Kingwood officials have asked the OPSB to ignore their staff’s input and grant the permit. In an interview, they said they await an unfavorable ruling that they plan to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.
DeWine, speaking to reporters last week, said he would leave the project to the legal process.
“I haven’t taken a specific position on it,” he said. “She’s in my backyard. I am careful not to take a position.
In addition to local government opposition, some outside groups have joined the legal fight against Kingwood. Among them is a group called “Citizens for Green Acres,” which claims to represent 47 people who live next to the project. In legal filings, citizens heard among their concerns: impaired views, construction noise, potential threats to birds and wildlife, lack of protection of groundwater supplies, and lack of protection from wind panels. , hail, lightning and fire. (OPSB staff disagreed with these points.)
Citizens for Green Acres is represented by an attorney named Jack Van Kley, who represents citizens challenging at least 12 solar and wind power projects across Ohio. He did not respond to a query.
Kingwood staff emphasized that they have offered concessions to locals, such as payments to property neighbors, expanded buffer zones between property lines and solar panels, and more robust plant protection.
The planet continues to warm, and a UN-backed international panel of scientists recently issued a major report on the worsening prospects for global warming and the whole-of-government need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
At a certain point, Suarez said, governments have to see a bigger picture than neighbors concerned about their unobstructed views.
“It needs to be interpreted more broadly than just the local community. You have to take into account the county and the state,” she said.
This story is republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.