Two bills recently introduced in the Ohio legislature could jeopardize the state’s fledgling utility-scale solar industry, business leaders say. Supporters of the legislation say it’s necessary to give locals the power to decide if they want these large wind and solar projects in their communities.
The Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Ohio, or USSEC Ohio, held a virtual press conference March 9 to discuss the impacts Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 118 would have if they became law.
“In Ohio, the problem is that there is not meaningful public participation in the siting process,” said Julia Johnson, of Champaign County. “The process for public participation is really very just perfunctory.”
SB 52 and HB 118 would set up a referendum process on large wind farm and solar facility certificates before the projects go before the Ohio Power Siting Board. It would basically put the control over approving these types of projects in the hands of the communities before the state.
“If this legislation was passed, it would almost certainly result in … investment leaving the state of Ohio for surrounding states,” said Mark Walter, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for Savion, a solar developer working in Ohio, during the USSEC Ohio press conference. “It would be challenging to convince companies to come to Ohio to develop solar projects.”
The Senate legislation was introduced by Republican Sens. Bill Reineke, of Tiffin, and Rob McColley, of Napoleon. The House version of the bill was sponsored by Republican Reps. Craig Reidel, of Defiance, and Dick Stein, of Norwalk.
The proponents of the bill that testified March 9 came from various backgrounds: county commissioners, township trustees, farmers and neighbors of proposed solar and wind sites. Though their concerns with the renewable energy projects varied, the biggest issue many of them had was the lack of public input in the Ohio Power Siting Board Process.
Joanna Clippinger, a farmer in Preble County, testified that her family’s farm is facing a threat from the 1,000-acre solar project that is slated to go in next to their property. She has several concerns. Will the installation of the solar panel racking system break drainage tiles, thus flooding their land? Will wildlife run rampant on their cropland once the solar project is fenced off and the deer, raccoons and other critters have nowhere else to go?
“I fully believe in private property rights, however, a person’s rights end when it impacts the rights of others,” Clippinger said.
Clippinger said after she learned her local elected officials had little power to help, she hired a lawyer to submit her concerns to the Ohio Power Siting Board.
“Our petitions to our government should not be based on if we can afford legal representation or not,” she said, during her testimony. “As Ohio law stands now, it seems that only the privileged can voice their concerns to government decision makers.”
The Ohio Power Siting Board process requires developers to host two events to gather public input at the beginning of the certification process. The first is an informational meeting that’s held before the certificate application is filed.
The second is a public hearing. This meeting is typically held in the area in which the project is slated to go in and recorded by a court reporter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they’ve been held online in the past year. Anyone can speak during the public hearing and have their comments submitted to the record.
The last step is to become an intervener in a case. Individuals can request to become interveners, which gives them the right to participate in any hearings and file for a rehearing or appeal a board decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Though legal counsel is not required for residents to request to intervene, many feel like it’s necessary to be taken seriously.
Despite this lengthy process, people still don’t feel as though their concerns are heard. Johnson said in her testimony that the power siting board has not once, despite numerous objections to different projects, denied a certificate. It feels like projects are getting rubber stamped.
The solar industry said in the press conference that the Ohio Power Siting Board process is rigorous enough. It allows for public input and requires a variety of studies, including environmental and cultural, wildlife, interconnection and economic.
“We want as much public interaction as we can get,” Walter said. “These projects are going to be in the community for years. If we’re not going to be good community stewards, we don’t deserve to be in those communities in the first place.”
Currently there are 34 projects either approved through the Ohio Power Siting Board or working their way through the certification process. The first projects were approved by the power siting board in September 2018. The process to develop, certify and build these projects takes years, Walter said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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