With millions of acres of flat farmland, Ohio and Indiana are becoming leading U.S. states for solar power development
Red states stand to reap the gains regardless: “When you look at renewable energy, the reddest Republican areas are the ones that are benefiting the most,” said Nick Cohen, chief executive of Doral Renewables, which is building what will be one of the largest U.S. solar projects, a US$1.6 billion complex in the Hoosier State.
From sun to soybeans
While Indiana doesn’t require that any of its power come from renewable sources, the state is finding that it can cultivate the sun as it does soybeans. “You’re seeing a state like Indiana really punch way above its weight class” in solar farms, Governor Eric Holcomb, a Republican, told Bloomberg Green’s podcast Zero in January. “We’re a small state, relatively speaking, but we have a lot of land, which is required.”
Today, utility-scale solar in Ohio costs less than half the price tag of an efficient natural gas-fired plant, including tax credits for renewables, said Amar Vasdev, an analyst at BNEF. In Indiana, solar is more than a third cheaper.
But barriers persist in Ohio. Despite utility companies such as AES Corp. and American Electric Power Co. pushing to modernize their networks with clean power and major employers exerting pressure, the state in the past decade has imposed various impediments to renewable energy development.
Prop up coal and nuclear
Ohio’s Republican leadership has tried to prop up coal and nuclear plants that have struggled to compete with solar, wind and natural gas. In 2019, the state passed a controversial law to bail out nuclear plants and scale back a minimum renewable requirement. The bill wound up at the crux of what federal prosecutors say is the largest corruption case in state history. It included utility giant FirstEnergy Corp. admitting that it conspired with public officials and others to pay millions of dollars in bribes toward the law’s passage. The legislator at the centre of the case, ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, is on trial in federal court in Cincinnati.
Roy Klopfenstein, a newly elected state representative in Ohio representing Paulding County, said he supported some renewables projects when he was a local official. But Klopfenstein, a Republican, said he still worries that the solar boom coupled with the closure of coal plants leaves the state vulnerable to power shortages at sunset and on cloudy days. “It should be about what the constituents want,” he said of the siting of solar farms. “Each community is different. I am a supporter first of property rights.”
Trying to avoid local rejections can make development more arduous. Some developers are facing complaints from residents about how solar panels would change the look and use of the landscape. Jane Harf, executive director of Green Energy Ohio, a non-profit that promotes sustainable energy, said solar has to clear a bar in Ohio that other land uses don’t have to meet. Whereas neighbours could stop a farmer from adding solar panels, “if he suddenly wanted a hog farm, they couldn’t stop him — and a hog farm is a lot more offensive to neighbours.”
Early solar champions
For farmers, solar is a way to “balance the financials” after years of corporate consolidation in the industry, said Rachel Tayse, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. There is concern, however, that big solar developers can outbid farmers for land by paying prices too steep to turn a profit on any type of crop, Tayse said. “Our communities need both — they need renewable energy and they need food.”
The pace of Ohio’s solar boom suggests that developers aren’t being scared off. The best way to prevent rejection “is to get into the communities early so they’re supportive,” said Michael Arndt, the president and general manager of Recurrent Energy, a developer owned by panel manufacturer Canadian Solar Inc. “We try to find early champions.”
The Miller City project has been in the works for about five years. First, the COVID-19 pandemic and supply snarls slowed development. Now, there’s a possibility of further surveys being required. “It definitely could be delayed,” Erford said. “I don’t think it would be cancelled.” He’s hopeful that groundbreaking will happen in July.
Some farmers in Indiana, meanwhile, are receptive to the prospect of new revenues from solar fields on their land, said Doral’s Cohen: “We’ve been in their barns drinking their homebrews and target-shooting in the back.”