Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Massive Ohio Solar & Agrivoltaic Project Has Locals Riled Up

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The Ohio Power Siting Board has approved Oak Run, a 6000-acre solar farm and battery storage project that will be the largest in Ohio and one of the largest in the US. That’s great news for renewable energy fans, but that’s not the main story here. What is important about this announcement is that Oak Run is bitterly opposed by the residents of three townships in Madison county, which is located about 25 miles west of  Columbus.

Siting of renewable energy installations has become politically supercharged, thanks in large measure to disinformation campaigns disguised as grass roots organizations that are funded and advised by national groups funded by fossil fuel interests, notably Citizens For Responsible Solar.

Solar, NIMBY, & Michigan

As we reported earlier this year, Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told USA Today recently, “I think for years, there has been this sense that this is not all coincidence. That local groups are popping up in different places, saying the same things, using the same online campaign materials.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar seems to be a well-mobilized “national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy,” Burger adds. “What that reflects is the unfortunate politicization of climate change, the politicization of energy, and, unfortunately, the political nature of the energy transition, which is really just a necessary response to an environmental reality.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C. by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics. Ralston tapped conservative insiders to help set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. She also consulted with a longtime activist against renewable energy who once defended former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that noise from wind turbines can cause cancer.

When Ralston was launching the group, a consulting firm she owns got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation of a leading GOP donor who is also a major investor in fossil fuel companies. It’s unclear what the money given to Ralston’s firm was used for. Ralston has previously denied that Citizens for Responsible Solar received money from fossil fuel interests.

Oak Run Solar & Storage

According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Oak Run Solar Project is an 800-megawatt solar farm with a 300-megawatt energy storage system planned for Monroe, Somerford, and Deercreek townships along State Route 29. The project will cost at least $1 billion and cover 6,050 acres of farmland, much of which is owned by a Bill Gates LLC known as Midwest Farms, based in Monterey, Louisiana.

The 800 megawatts of power to be generated by the project is more than twice that of any other project to be approved or pending before the Ohio Siting Board and one of the biggest in the country. It is being developed by Savion, which is owned by Shell. Construction of the Oak Run solar farm is expected to begin in 2025.

Savion has promised to turn Oak Run into the largest agrivoltaic program in the US. The company says it will plant crops and graze livestock in between the rows of the solar panels and around the perimeter of the project. In the first year of operation, Oak Run must graze at least 1,000 sheep and grow crops on 2,000 acres. Within eight years of operation, at least 70% of the arable land — around 4,000 acres — must include agrivoltaics.

Oak Run will work with local farmers and businesses and will contribute $8.2 million a year in tax revenue for local governments and schools. Other conditions of the project include perimeter fencing, setbacks of 150 feet to roadways and non-participating property boundaries, and 300 feet to non-participating homes.

Still Not Satisfied

Madison County officials opposed the project, as have officials from the three townships where the project will be built. Commissioner Chris Wallace said the county commissioners have received large numbers of phone calls, text messages, emails, and letters opposing the project. “I just want to state clearly on the record, that if this board is to approve this project, they would be doing so in the face of strong local opposition, I think spitting in the face of Madison County voters,” he said.

Supporters of the project include labor unions, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and environmentalists, all of whom tout the jobs, revenue, and clean power Oak Run will provide. The project will create thousands of jobs in the construction phase in addition to more than 60 full time positions in operations and maintenance once completed.

Patrick Hook, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 683, said in a comment to the Ohio Power Siting Board, ​“Members of IBEW 683 are excited to have opportunities to work close to home, allowing them to return to their families for dinner after a hard day’s work.”

Local Control Over Solar Farms Vs. State Control

Not to put too fine a point on things, but a warming planet is putting stress on the farming community and renewable projects like Oak Run are one of the few ways America has to do something about anthropogenic climate change that is pummeling farmers with both heavy flooding and punishing droughts.

It is getting harder for farmers to make a living and leasing a portion of their land to solar developers is one way to keep them from becoming insolvent and losing their land altogether. All this hoopla about losing the “character” of farming communities is a bunch of hogwash that ignores the real threats to farming  brought about by hotter temperatures and more frequent flooding.

Worries about losing the bucolic look and feel of rural America amounts to a deliberate refusal to recognize that change is coming quickly to rural America and no amount of flag waving or railing at state officials is going to help stem the rapid pace of change these communities are facing. In other words, they are being goaded by outside interests who could care less about them into adopting an attitude that amounts to willful ignorance.

The Takeaway

Similar battles are taking place in Kansas where an elderly couple in their 90s who wanted a reliable source of income by leasing some of their land to a solar developer have become pariahs in the community where they have lived for decades. Solar is farming. Solar panels use the same sunlight that plants use in photosynthesis.

The hypocrisy of the fossil fuel campaigns against renewables is made clear when no similar objections are raised if an oil or gas company brings their trucks onto a farmland to drill for fuel using millions of gallons of toxic water that pollutes local aquifers and drinking water. These same people who scream about solar power don’t raise a peep of protest when fossil fuels are involved, even though extracting them leaves scars on the land that almost never heal.

Farmers who lease their land for oil or gas exploration are seen as astute businesspeople while those who lease their land for solar panels are seen as destroyers of communities. The hypocrisy of the NIMBY crowd is breathtaking. Especially now that the World Meteorological Organization has certified that 2023 was the hottest year in the past 100,000 years, worrying about red barns and white rail fences is like painting your stateroom on the Titanic a different color as the ship sinks beneath the waves.

We are in a full-on climate emergency, people, and your concerns about “rural character” are about 1,256th on the list of things you should be worried about. So roll your sleeves up and get to work making the Earth sustainable for all living things. Nature doesn’t care a flying fig leaf about your bucolic “way of life” which is under threat in ways you have never thought about.

If the world becomes a lifeless cinder, there won’t be any farms — or any people for that matter. Ignoring the climate crisis will not make it stop any more than doing a rain dance will bring moisture to parched fields. Local control is not worth a bucket of warm spit if there are no fields left where crops can grow. Acting like adults instead of reactive children is hard but necessary. Might as well get on with it.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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