Renewable Energy

By: Ellen Essman, Thursday, November 14th, 2019

We haven’t done a legislative update in a while—so what’s been going on in the Ohio General Assembly? Without further ado, here is an update on some notable ag-related bills that have recently passed one of the houses, been discussed in committee, or been introduced. 

  • House Bill 7, “Create water quality protection and preservation”

This bill passed the House in June, but the Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on it just last month.  HB 7 would create both the H2Ohio Trust Fund and the H2Ohio Advisory Council.  To explain these entities in the simplest terms, the H2Ohio Advisory Council would decide how to spend the money in the H2Ohio Trust Fund.  The money could be used for grants, loans, and remediation projects to address water quality priorities in the state, to fund research concerning water quality, to encourage cooperation in addressing water quality problems among various groups, and for priorities identified by the Ohio Lake Erie commission.  The Council would be made up of the following: the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie commission, one state senator from each party appointed by the President of the Senate, one state representative from each party appointed by the Speaker of the House, and appointees from the Governor to represent counties, municipal corporations, public health, business or tourism, agriculture, statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and institutions of higher education. Under HB 7, the ODA, OEPA, and ODNR would have to submit an annual plan to be accepted or rejected by the Council, which would detail how the agencies planned to use their money from the Fund. You can find the bill in its current form here

  • House Bill 24, “Revise Humane Society law”

HB 24 passed the House unanimously on October 30, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.  The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations and require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve.  Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense.  Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats.  You can read HB 24 here

  • House Bill 160, “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”

Since our last legislative update, HB 160 has passed the House and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.  At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol must in Ohio obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol.  This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. To read the bill, click here.

  • House Bill 168, “Establish affirmative defense-certain hazardous substance release”

This bill was passed in the House back in May, but there have been several committee hearings on it this fall.  HB 168 would provide a bona fide prospective purchaser of a facility that was contaminated with hazardous substances before the purchase with immunity from liability to the state in a civil action.  In other words, the bona fide prospective purchaser would not have the responsibility of paying the state of Ohio for their investigations and remediation of the facility. In order to claim this immunity, the purchaser would have to show that they fall under the definition of a bona fide prospective purchaser, that the state’s cause of action rests upon the person’s status as an owner or operator of the facility, and that the person does not impede a response action or natural resource restoration at the facility. You can find the bill and related information here.

  • House Bill 183, “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers”

House Bill 183 was discussed in the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on November 12.  This bill would authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program.  Another nonrefundable tax credit would be available for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers.  ODA would be in charge of certifying individuals as “beginning farmers” and approving eligible financial management programs. HB 183 is available here. A companion bill (SB 159) has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Ways & Means Committee, but no committee hearings have taken place.    

  • House Bill 373, “Eliminate apprentice/special auctioneer licenses/other changes”

HB 373 was introduced on October 22, and the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee held a hearing on it on November 12. This bill would make numerous changes to laws applicable to auctioneers.  For instance, it would eliminate the requirement that a person must serve as an apprentice auctioneer prior to becoming an auctioneer; instead, it would require applicants for an auctioneers’ license to pass a course. The bill would also require licensed auctioneers to complete eight continuing education hours prior to renewing their license.  HB 373 would give ODA the authority to regulate online auctions conducted by  a human licensed auctioneer, and would require people auctioning real or personal property on the internet to be licensed as an auctioneer. To read the bill in its entirety and see all the changes it would make, click here.

  • Senate Bill 2, “Create watershed planning structure”

Since our last legislative post, SB 2 has passed the Senate and is now in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director.  Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region.  The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices.  Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus.  Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption. The text of SB 2 is available here.

  • Senate Bill 234, “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”

Senate Bill 234 was just introduced on November 6, 2019.  The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote.  The bill would also change minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured.  SB 234 is available here.  A companion bill was also recently introduced in the House.  HB 401 can be found here

By: Ellen Essman, Monday, November 04th, 2019

If you’ve been keeping up with the ag news lately, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  As a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel.” Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops such as corn and soybeans. Lately, you may have heard discussion about a controversial new rule regarding the volumes of biofuels that are required to be mixed with oil.  While all that talk has been going on, there has also been a lawsuit against the EPA for RFS exemptions given to certain oil refineries.  Congress has been examining the exemptions as well. Having trouble keeping all of this RFS information straight? We’ll help you sort it out. 

EPA proposes new RFS rule

As we explained in our last Ag Law Harvest post, available here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the RFS program in 2020 and 2021.  Agricultural and biofuels groups are not pleased with the proposed blending rules, arguing that the way EPA proposes to calculate biofuel volumes would result in much lower volumes than they were originally promised by President Trump. (The original promise was made in part to make up for waivers the Trump EPA had given to oil refineries.) Conversely, EPA and the Trump administration contend that the proposed rule does meet the previously agreed upon biofuel volumes.  A hearing on the proposed rule was held on October 30, where many agriculture and biofuels groups expressed their concerns.  The oil industry was also represented at the hearing.  Members of the oil industry feel that the cost of mixing in biofuels is too high.  It is unlikely any deal was struck at the hearing, but there is still an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule if you wish.  Comments are due on November 29, 2019.  You can click here for commenting instructions, as well as for a link to submit your comment online. 

Ag and biofuels groups sue the EPA

In the midst of the argument over how the volumes of biodiesel under the RFS will be calculated, another related quarrel has emerged. At the center of this dispute are exemptions EPA has given to “small refineries” in the oil industry. The number of exemptions given has increased drastically under the Trump administration, which in turn has lessened the demand for biofuels made from crops like corn and soybeans.  On October 23, 2019, agriculture and biofuel groups filed a petition against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In the petition, the groups ask the court to review a decision made in August 2019 which retroactively exempted over 31 small refineries from meeting their 2018 biofuels requirements.  The petitioning groups include Renewable Fuels Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, National Biodiesel Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Farmers Union. 

How does the small refinery exemption work?

Typically, an oil refinery would have to mix a set volume of renewable fuels, like biofuels, into their gasoline or diesel fuel. The volumes are set annually. Small refineries, which are defined as refineries where “the average aggregate daily crude oil throughput does not exceed 75,000 barrels,” can petition the EPA for an exemption from meeting their renewable fuel obligations. Exemptions are typically given temporarily if the refinery can show they would suffer economic hardship if they were made to blend their fuel with biofuel.  A refinery seeking an exemption has to include a number of records showing their economic hardship in their petition, such as tax filings and financial statements.  EPA’s website explaining the small refinery exemption is available here.

Why are ag and biofuel groups asking for judicial review?

Why are the groups we mentioned above upset about this particular set of small refinery exemptions?  Well, first of all, the groups point to the brevity of the EPA’s decision. (The decision document can be found in the link to the petition, listed above.)  The EPA’s decision document uses only two pages to explain their decision on 36 small refinery petitions.  Because the decision was so short, the groups feel that EPA did not include the analysis of economic hardship for each refinery that they believe is required by the Clean Air Act and RFS regulations.  Essentially, the groups argue that the EPA has not provided enough evidence or explanation for awarding the exemptions.  You can read the groups’ press release explaining their reasoning here

Underlying all of this is the fact that more small refinery exemptions means lower demand for biofuels.  In fact, the ag and biofuel groups claim that due to the 31 exemptions made in August alone, 1.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel were not used.  In addition, the 31 exemptions are just a few of many awarded by Trump’s EPA.  By all accounts, since Trump took office, there has been a sharp increase in exemptions granted.  EPA has data on the number of exemptions available here.  The first year the Trump administration made exemptions is 2016. 

Congress gets in on the action

It seems as though the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change (part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) is also worried about EPA’s exemptions, or waivers, for small oil refineries.  On October 29, 2019, the Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled “Protecting the RFS: The Trump Administration’s Abuse of Secret Waivers.”  In fact, in their memo about the hearing, the Subcommittee cited some of the same issues in the lawsuit we discussed above; namely the increase in waivers and the consequent effect on biofuel demand. Testimony was heard from both ag/biofuels and oil representatives.    

In the hearing, the Subcommittee also considered the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act of 2019.”  The text of the bill is available here.  The bill would require small refineries to submit petitions for exemptions from RFS requirements annually by June 1.  Additionally, it would require information in the waiver petitions to be available to the American public.  For information and documents related to the hearing, as well as a video stream of the hearing, click here

What happens next?

As you can see, we’re playing a waiting game on three separate fronts.  For the RFS rule, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of comments are submitted, and whether or not the EPA takes those comments into account when it writes the final rule.  As for the lawsuit, all eyes are on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The court could determine that the law does indeed require EPA to include more information and analysis to explain their reasons for exemption. On the other hand, the court could find that EPA’s decision document is sufficient under the law.  In Congress, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed bill gets out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and onto the House floor.  We will be keeping track of the RFS developments on all fronts and keep you updated on what happens!  

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Large "utility-scale" solar energy development is on the rise in Ohio.  In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval.   These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland.   The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties.  About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture. 

With solar energy development, then, comes a new demand for farmland:  solar leasing.  Many Ohio farmland owners have received post cards and letters about the potential of leasing land to a solar energy developer.  This prospect might sound appealing at first, particularly in a difficult farming year like this one.  But leasing land for a solar energy development raises many implications for the land, family, farm operation, and community.  It's a long-term legal commitment--usually 25 years or more--that requires careful assessment and a bit of homework. 

To help landowners who are considering solar leasing, we've joined forces with Eric Romich, OSU Extension's Field Specialist in Energy Education, to publish the Farmland Owner's Guide to Solar Leasing.  The online guide explains the state of solar energy development in Ohio, reviews initial considerations for leasing farmland to solar, and describes legal documents and common terms used for solar leasing.  The guide's solar leasing checklist organizes the information into a list of issues to consider, things to do, people to consult, and questions to ask before deciding whether to enter into a solar lease.

The Farmland Owner's Guide to Solar Leasing is available at no cost on our Farm Office website, here.  A separate Law Bulletin of The Farmland Owner's Solar Leasing Checklist is also available on Farm Office, here.  We produced the guide in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas, with funding from the National Agricultural Library, Agricultual Research Service, at the United States Department of Agriculture.

 

Posted In: Contracts, Property, Renewable Energy
Tags: solar leasing
Comments: 0
By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, August 09th, 2019

This weekend, as you enjoy your morning cup of coffee and find yourself wondering what’s the news in our court system, look no further than this blog post.  Every now and then there’s a new court opinion related to agricultural law that peaks our interest and makes us want to share a summary of what happened.  This week we read cases about the federal Takings Clause, wind energy, and oil and gas rights.  Here are the stories:

  • A property owner may bring a claim in federal court under the Fifth Amendment when the government has violated the Takings Clause by taking property without just compensation.  This case involved a township ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be held open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.  A property owner with a small family graveyard was notified that she was violating the ordinance.  The property owner filed suit in state court arguing that the ordinance constituted a taking of her property, but did not seek compensation.  The township responded by saying it would withdraw the notice of violation and not enforce the ordinance against her.  The state court said that the matter was therefore resolved, but the property owner was not satisfied with that decision.  She decided to bring a takings claim in federal court.

Before this decision, there was a roadblock to bringing such claim.  Lower courts had read a previous Supreme Court decision to say that if a state or local government commits a taking, the property owner would first have to seek a remedy through the state’s adverse condemnation procedure before going to federal court.  But in doing so, the property owner would actually not have a chance to bring the claim in federal court because the federal court would have to give full faith and credit to the state court decision.  At first, that seemed like what would happen to the property owner because the state court had decided that the issue was moot since the township had agreed not to enforce the ordinance against her.  But the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the property owner by taking the rare action of overruling its prior precedent.  Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, was not an Ohio court case, but rather one that made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read the case, click HERE.

The final opinion handed down by the justices is certainly important, but it is also notable for Ohio because the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF) submitted an amicus brief in support of the property owner through its legal counsel, Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease, LLP of Columbus.  The brief cited examples in Ohio showing that the Supreme Court’s prior precedent was causing problems for Ohio property owners by limiting their access to federal courts in Fifth Amendment takings claims.  OFBF has noted that this was the first time it had submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Ohio Power Siting Board’s approval of new wind-turbine models in facility’s certificate does not constitute an amendment to the certificate for the purposes of triggering current turbine-setback requirements.  In 2014, the Ohio Power Siting Board approved an application by Greenwich Windpark to construct a wind farm in Huron County with up to 25 wind turbines.  In the initial application, all of the wind turbines would have used the same model of turbine.  Just over a year after the application was approved, the wind farm developer applied for an amendment to add three additional models to the approved wind turbine model list, noting that the technology had advanced since its initial application.  Two of the three newer models would be larger than the originally planned model, but would occupy the same locations and would comply with the minimum setback requirements at the time the application was approved. 

The issue involved whether the new setback requirements, which were put in place by the state between the initial approval and the requested change, should apply.  An amendment to a certificate would trigger the current wind turbine setback requirements.  Greenwich Windpark wanted the less restrictive setback requirements in their initial application to still apply to the newer models, but a local group wanted the more restrictive setback requirements to apply.  The Ohio Power Siting Board said that adding the new wind turbine models would not be an amendment, and would not trigger the more restrictive setbacks.  The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the Ohio Power Siting Board, explaining that the Ohio General Assembly wanted the Ohio Power Siting Board to have broad authority to regulate wind turbines.  This case is cited as In re Application of 6011 Greenwich Winkpark, L.L.C., 2019-Ohio-2406, and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.

  • Children claiming to be heirs of reserved oil and gas rights are in privity with previous owners of the interest when connected by an auditor’s deed specifically mentioning those interests.  The issue was whether children claiming their father’s oil and gas interests were blocked by the legal doctrine of issue preclusion from obtaining clear title to their interest when a previous Ohio Dormant Mineral Act (ODMA) lawsuit quieted title to mineral interests underlying their claim.  This preclusion would be possible because the previous owners’ interests formed the basis of the father’s interest.  Even though they were not named in the previous ODMA lawsuit, by virtue of being in privity, or legally connected, to the previous owners, the children would be bound by the previous lawsuit because the ODMA lawsuit cleared the previous owners’ interests along with any interests in their successors and assigns.  Ultimately the court found that because the children stood in their father’s shoes, and his claim would be linked to the previous owners’ claims in the land, the previous ODMA lawsuit binds the children.  This had the effect of eliminating the children’s claims in the oil and gas rights.  This case is cited as Winland v. Christman, 2019-Ohio-2408 (7th Dist.), and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.
By: Evin Bachelor, Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Many landowners across the state have been contacted by solar energy developers interested in leasing farmland for utility-scale solar energy production.  The combination of improved technology, reduced production costs, the phase-out of federal tax credits, and the willingness of landowners to enter into long-term leases have made 2019 a sunny year for entering into solar leases.

The sudden surge of solar leasing has led to new questions about what this type of lease mean for a landowner, a community, and the future.  As these leases may last for 30 years or more, it is important to understand what a utility-scale solar energy development looks like, along with the terms in a solar lease and the implications of signing.

Join OSU Extension Field Specialists Peggy Kirk Hall and Eric Romich on Monday, July 15th for a conversation on solar leasing.  Together, the presenters will address solar development trends, converting farmland to solar production, and key considerations to weigh before signing a solar lease.  Those interested may choose between one of two sessions:

  • Morning session: Madison County from 9:00am to noon at the Red Brick Tavern (1700 Cumberland Road/Route 40, London, Ohio).  Breakfast will be provided!
  • Afternoon session: Greene County from 2:00pm to 5:00pm at the Greene County Extension office (100 Fairground Road, Xenia, Ohio).

Each meeting will cover the same information.  Registration is required, but there is no cost to attend.  To register for the morning session in Madison County, email Griffith.483@osu.edu or call 740-852-0975.  To register for the afternoon session in Greene County, email Corboy.3@osu.edu or call 937-372-9971.

Click HERE to view the official flier.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about some of the documents and major considerations that will be discussed at the meeting, click HERE.  If you want to learn more about some common solar lease terms, click HERE.

By: Evin Bachelor, Monday, June 10th, 2019

The biennial budget remains the center of attention for members of the Ohio General Assembly, but some other bills have made progress since our last legislative update.  We will post a separate blog post about the biennial budget soon, but for now here is a review of other legislative activity at the statehouse. 

New legislation since our last legislative update

  • Senate Bill 159, titled “Grant tax credits to assist beginning farmers.”  This bill is essentially the same as House Bill 183, which seeks to provide tax incentives to beginning farmers along with those willing to help them build a farm operation.  Introducing the bill in the Senate while the House considers another bill allows the process to potentially go more quickly.  Instead of waiting on the House to complete all of its committee hearings and approve the bill, the Senate can start its own process.
  • House Bill 223, titled “Alter setback-wind farms of 5 or more megawatts.”  In 2014, the Ohio General Assembly modified the distance that wind turbines must be setback from an adjacent property line.  House Bill 223 would modify the setback law to base the setback on the distance from the nearest habitable residential structure on a neighboring property instead of the property line.  The setback requirement would affect future project certificates, as well as any amendments made to an existing certificate.  Click HERE for more information about the bill from the Ohio General Assembly’s website.

Legislation that we continue to follow

Here’s a status update on bills we covered HERE in March and HERE in April.  Access each bill’s webpage on the Ohio General Assembly website by clicking on the bill number in the following tables. 

 

Legislation passed by the Senate and currently under consideration in the House

Category

Bill No.

Bill Title

Status

Hemp

SB 57

Decriminalize hemp and license hemp cultivator

- Passed Senate

- Passed House Ag & Natural Resources committee

- Awaits vote of the full House of Representatives

Regulations

SB 1

Reduce number of regulatory restrictions

- Passed Senate

- Referred to House State & Local Government Committee

Business Law

SB 21

Allow corporation to become benefit corporation

- Passed Senate

- Referred to House Civil Justice Committee

 

Legislation going through the committee process, but not yet passed in either chamber

Category

Bill No.

Bill Title

Status

Watershed Planning

SB 2

Create state watershed planning structure

- Completed third hearing in Senate Ag & Natural Resources Committee

Tax

HB 183

Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers

- Completed second hearing in House Ag & Rural Development Committee

Estate Planning

HB 209

Abolish estate by dower

- Completed third hearing in House Civil Justice Committee

Animals

HB 24

Revise humane society law

- Passed House Ag & Rural Development Committee

- Awaits vote of the full House of Representatives

Oil and Gas

HB 55

Require oil and gas royalty statements

- Completed first hearing in House Energy & Natural Resources Committee

Mineral Rights

HB 100

Revise requirements governing abandoned mineral rights

- Completed first hearing in House Energy & Natural Resources Committee

Energy

SB 119

Exempt Ohio from daylight savings time

- Completed first hearing in Senate General Government and Agency Review Committee

Local Gov’t

SB 114

Expand township authority-regulate noise in unincorporated areas

- Completed second hearing in Senate Local Government, Public Safety, & Veterans Affairs Committee

Property

HB 103

Change law relating to land installment contracts

- Completed second hearing in House Civil Justice Committee

Regulation of Alcohol

HB 160

Revise alcoholic ice cream law

- Completed third hearing in House State & Local Government Committee

Regulation of Alcohol

HB 179

Exempt small wineries from retail food establishment licensing

- Completed first hearing in House Health Committee

 

Legislation not on the move

These bills have not made much progress.  The biggest action taken on each so far has been referring the bill to a committee, but no committee has yet to hold a hearing on any of the bills.  Remember that we are in the middle of budget season, and only in the first six months of this legislative cycle, so the bills could still see activity later.

Category

Bill No.

Bill Title

Status

Animals

HB 124

Allow small livestock on residential property

- Referred to House Ag & Rural Development Committee

Animals

HB 33

Establish animal abuse reporting requirements

- Referred to House Criminal Justice Committee

Energy

HB 20

Prohibit homeowner associations placing limits on solar panels

- Referred to House State & Local Government Committee

Local Gov’t

HB 48

Create local government road improvement fund

- Referred to House Finance Committee

Local Gov’t

HB 54

Increase tax revenue allocated to the local government fund

- Referred to House Ways & Means Committee

Oil and Gas

HB 94

Ban taking oil or natural gas from bed of Lake Erie

- Referred to House Energy & Natural Resources Committee

Oil and Gas

HB 95

Revise oil and gas law about brine and well conversions

- Referred to House Energy & Natural Resources Committee

Regulation of Alcohol

HB 181

Promote use of Ohio agricultural goods in alcoholic beverages

- Referred to House Ag & Rural Development Committee

Tax

HB 109

Grant tax exemption for land used for commercial maple syruping

- Referred to House Ways & Means Committee

 

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

With all the rain and delayed planting that Ohio farmers have experienced this spring, signing a solar lease has been a very appealing prospect for many farmland owners.  While this may be the right decision for a farm, it is very important that the farmland owner understand exactly what he or she is signing.  Once an energy developer offers to pay you to enter into an agreement, and you sign that agreement, its terms will be legally binding.

In our recent blog post on solar leasing, we discussed some of the early documents that a farmland owner is likely to receive from an interested solar energy developer.  Further, we gave some general advice on what farmland owners should do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing his or her land.  One of our main suggestions was to take the time to fully understand what the farmland owner is getting into, and that is where this post comes in.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the important provisions of a solar lease that you as a farmland owner should look for in your solar lease, and understand what they mean.  A good solar lease will be very thorough, and include a lot of legalese.  Our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, will go more in depth than this blog post on the terms below and more.  It would also be a wise decision to consult with an attorney to ensure that your understanding of your solar lease reflects what the documents say.

For now, here are a few provisions to be on the lookout for in your solar lease:

The term.  How long does this lease last?  Most solar leases last for 20 to 30 years.  This is the time during which solar energy is being collected and sold.  Solar energy developers like this multi-decade duration because it allows them to use of the solar panels for their expected productive lifespan.

Thirty years is a long time.  Many careers are retirement-eligible after that period, and many farms will transition to the next generation in that amount of time.  This long of a term is not necessarily a bad thing.  It just means that a farmland owner should look back and look ahead.  Think back 30 years to 1989.  What all has changed on your farm?  What would it have looked like to not be able to use this ground for the past 30 years?  Now look ahead.  What do you expect your needs and those of your family to look like when this lease ends in 2049?  Only you can determine if not being able to use your land for that long is a good thing.

Phases.  How is this lease broken up?  We just explained that most solar leases will last for 20 to 30 years, but that clock usually starts ticking once construction has started on the project.  Solar energy developers will often reserve a year or two during which they can conduct their final feasibility studies and obtain necessary permits.  Some leases structure this pre-construction phase as merely an option phase, meaning that the energy developer will pay a small amount of rent to keep its option alive for that one or two-year period, but it does not necessarily have to commence construction.

Further, toward the end of the term, the energy developer may have written in an option to renew for another 5 or 10 years.  These renewals are often structured as a right that the energy developer may exercise merely by giving notice to the landowner.  Additionally, in the middle, if there is a natural disaster that puts the operation out of service for any period of time, a solar lease may stop the clock from ticking until the project is operational again and solar energy is being collected.

The important take-away for the phases is being able to know when each phase begins and ends.  When all of the different phases are combined, instead of just a 30-year lease, you could be looking at a 42-year agreement.  The only way to know how long it could last is to thoroughly read the entire lease.

A description of the premises.  Every solar lease will contain a description of the premises.  If an entire parcel is being leased, then this part is fairly easy.  However, if only a portion of the parcel is being lease, the farmland owner will want to make sure that the lease provides an adequate description so that the leased portion can be easily determined on the ground.  Often, this will include a survey and maps.  Knowing the boundaries is important because these leases are often exclusive, such that the farmland owner has little or no use or access of the leased land throughout the term.

Easements.  What rights are being granted to the solar energy developer?  Solar leases include a series of easements that give the solar energy developer the right to use your land.  Some of the common easements include a:

  • Construction easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property in order to construct the solar facility
  • Access easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property to reach the solar facility
  • Transmission easement: a right to install power lines, poles, and other equipment to transmit the energy produced by the solar panels to the grid
  • Solar easement: a right to unobstructed access to the sun without interference from structures or other improvements
  • Catch-all easement: a general right to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the project

Solar energy developers want their easements to be as broad and generous as possible in order to maximize their flexibility with the project.  This is not always to the advantage of the farmland owner.  If the lease is general enough to allow the solar energy developer to sub-lease to another entity such as a telecommunications company, the landowner will have a difficult time preventing the solar energy developer from doing so.  The farmland owner wants to make sure that the easements being granted are specific enough to not result in any surprises.

Landowner obligations and rights.  What does the lease require of you as the farmland owner?  Usually private solar energy developers include a non-interference provision, a quiet enjoyment provision, and an exclusivity provision.  All combined, these provisions are a promise by the farmland owner to not enter the solar facilities without prior permission, not interfere with the solar facilities, and not allow anyone else to do so for the duration of the term.

Further, solar leases often include a confidentiality provision that courts will enforce as legally binding.  These provisions allow the solar energy developer to control the flow of its proprietary information, and also prevent landowners from talking with one another about topics such as rent rates.  It is important to understand:

  • What information is protected
  • If there are any exceptions
  • When consent might be granted
  • If specific penalties apply
  • How long confidentiality lasts

The solar lease may also include a provision about farmland owner improvements.  These explain if and when the landowner needs to obtain prior approval of the solar energy developer in order to build a structure or plant something that may interfere with the solar project.

Property maintenance.  Who is going to mow?  Ohio landowners have a legal duty to cut noxious weeds, and a well drafted lease will cover which party to the lease bears responsibility for keeping the leased land clear.  Usually, the solar energy developer will take this responsibility, but it helps to have this in writing.

Cleanup terms.  Cleanup involves a lot of questions.  Does the solar lease require the solar energy developer to restore the land to its previous state?  If so, how is this measured?  Will all stakes and foundations be removed?  Will all improvements, like roadways, be removed?  How will the solar energy developer guarantee that it will be able to pay for this cleanup in 30 years?  Does it post a security, and if so, when?  A thorough lease will answer these questions.

Tax and conservation penalties.  Tax and conservation also involves a lot of questions because constructing and operating a solar facility will make the property ineligible for the full benefits of CAUV and most conservation programs.  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover real estate taxes?  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover the three-year lookback penalty for removing land from CAUV?  What will the solar energy developer do toward the end of the lease so that the land can be put back into production and made CAUV eligible again?  Similar questions must be asked for conservation programs.

Compensation.  It’s not that we saved the fun and best part for last.  We just wanted to make sure that compensation is not the first and only thing considered when deciding whether or not to enter into a solar lease.  While it certainly is important, some of the issues discussed above must be just as carefully understood.

The solar leases that we have seen involve cash rent that increases over time based upon a fixed escalator.  The escalator is a percent increase.  If the escalator increases at a rate greater than inflation, then the farmland owner will receive more bang for his or her land.  However, if the escalator increases at a rate lower than long-term inflation, then the solar energy developer will have to pay less over time.

Another point of compensation to consider is how damages will be calculated for harm to property and crops.  When the solar energy developer decides it is time to start construction, its option and easements grant it the right to begin construction even if there is a crop already in the ground.  This makes it in a farmland owner’s best interest to have this issue addressed up front.  These damages will often be calculated my multiplying the number of acres by the average county yield for that crop by that crop’s commodity future price with the Chicago Board of Trade for a given date.  This provides an objective calculation for damages.

Verbal promises.  A note of caution: if the solar energy developer makes you a verbal promise, ask for that promise to be included in the written lease.  If there is a conflict between what a representative of the solar energy developer tells you and what is written in the lease, the terms in the written lease are likely to prevail.

The activity we are seeing across Ohio right now with solar reminds us of the early stages of the recent wind and shale energy booms.  Some of the biggest regrets that we hear about are from landowners who thought they were getting a better deal than they actually did.  Reading through, understanding, and thinking about the lease is an essential part of calculating whether or not the lease being offered is actually a good deal for a farmland owner and his or her family.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to your team of professionals in this process.  Your attorney, tax professional, extension educator, and others can be a great resource.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

We haven’t seen much sun in Ohio lately, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of solar energy development.  In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval.   These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland.   The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties.  About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture. 

We’re hearing that solar energy developers are on the lookout for more land in these and several other counties across the state.  As the markets fluctuate and weather continues to prevent planting, leasing farmland to a solar energy developer might look pretty appealing.  But we always urge caution and due diligence for any leasing situation, and solar energy is no exception. 

What should you do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing your farmland for a large scale solar energy facility?  Our best advice is not to jump too quickly.  Instead, take the time to fully understand what you’re getting into.  A typical solar lease can last for 30 years and thus can have long term legal, financial and social implications for a farmland owner.  An important initial question is how does this type of land use fit into your future vision for your land, your farm operation, and your family?  If you don’t yet know much about large scale solar development and what it means for your land, give a listen to this webinar from our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.

In this post, we’ll focus on the beginning of the solar leasing legal process.   The large scale solar projects in Ohio range from 600 to 3,300 acres of land, so a developer first has to assemble the land base once it identifies an area for a solar development project.   Leasing the land is the typical mechanism used for the solar projects in Ohio.  If a developer is interested in leasing your land, the first documents you may receive from the developer are a letter of intent and/or an option to lease.  These documents are the precursors to a solar lease but, like a lease, are written in favor of the developer and establish legal rights for the developer.  Careful review is critical, as these documents can tie up the land and the landowner for several years or more.

The letter of intent Some developers use a written letter of intent to notify a landowner of the developer’s interest in a parcel of land.  The purpose of the letter is to begin the process of considering the land for a long term solar lease.   Note, however, that a letter of intent might also contain a confidentiality clause that would prevent the landowner from talking with other developers about the land or sharing details of the developer’s interest with anyone.   Be aware that courts will generally enforce a signed letter of intent as a legally binding contract if the developer has offered the landowner a payment or similar benefit for signing the letter.   By signing confidentiality provisions in a letter of intent, a landowner can be foreclosed from considering other solar leasing opportunities.

The option to leaseMore commonly, the first document a solar developer will ask a landowner to sign is an option to lease.  Don’t be fooled by the name of this document and think that it’s not a legally binding agreement.  While an option is not the same as a lease, it can have the same legal effect of tying up the land for a certain period of time and might also dictate many of the terms of the lease if the developer decides to move forward on the project.

An option to lease grants the solar developer rights to explore the possibility of using the land for a solar project, but the developer may choose not to lease the land or develop the project.  The option period, typically up to five years, gives the developer time to conduct due diligence on the property, assemble other land parcels, secure financing, and obtain government approval for the project.  At the end of the option period, the developer should decide whether or not to proceed with the project.  An option also can give the developer the right to terminate and back out of the option at any time prior to the end of the option period. 

On the other hand, a landowner doesn’t have an option to back out once he or she signs an option to lease.  The landowner is bound for the entire option period.   Like a letter of intent, an option can contain confidentiality and “exclusive dealing” provisions that prevent the landowner from sharing details or entering into leasing opportunities with other developers during the option period.  The option might also require the landowner to cooperate with the developer’s due diligence and help the developer obtain approvals and permits.  Many options also include language that allows the developer to assign the option to another solar developer.

Be aware that an option can also contain significant leasing terms that carry over if the developer proceeds with the project.  For example, in addition to allowing the developer to consider the land for a project, the option to lease could also include provisions for the period of the actual long term solar lease, the lease payment amount, easement rights, and landowner obligations.  Landowners might think that such terms could be negotiable later if the parties sign an “official” solar lease, but the option language may bind the landowner to the leasing terms that are presented in the option.  Sometimes, the option itself becomes the lease.  The net effect:  a landowner who thinks he or she is just signing a five year option agreement might also be committing to a 30 year solar lease and a predetermined lease payment.

What about crop production during the option period?  An option might contain language stating that the landowner may continue managing and operating the property in the same way after agreeing to the option.  But the option might also allow the developer to enter the property and proceed with the project at any time, including when crops are in the ground, although the option might not provide the landowner payment for the lost production.  In that case, the landowner simply loses out on the crop if the option doesn’t contain provisions for lost production.

As for payment for the option, a landowner usually receives an initial payment for signing the option, perhaps several thousand dollars or more.  During the option period, the landowner also typically receives an annual payment that is based on number of acres, perhaps $20 dollars per acre or more. 

Should you have an attorney review an option to lease?  Yes.  Option language can vary and we surely haven’t addressed all potential issues in this post.   A close examination by an attorney shouldn’t take much time or cost a lot and will ensure that you fully understand the legal implications of entering into the option to lease. 

Are the terms of an option negotiable?  That’s up to the landowner and the developer, but don’t assume that the developer won’t negotiate.  If you’re faced with an option to lease and don’t like the terms, try negotiating.  An attorney can be helpful here, also.

In our next solar leasing post, we’ll review the terms of a solar lease and consider how the lease can impact agricultural landowners over the typical 30 year lease period.  Watch also for our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, which will provide a detailed examination of the solar leasing process.

Bill makes wind and solar in Ohio competitive with neighboring states

Passed by both chambers of the Ohio legislature early morning on Friday, June 4, S.B. 232 provides tax exemptions for certain sources of new power generation. The bill was sponsored by State Senator Chris Widener and enjoyed bipartisan support. A press release from the Governor’s office makes clear he intends to sign it into law as soon as he receives it.

The new law will eliminate both the tangible personal property tax and the real property tax on new advanced energy projects. Qualified energy sources include wind, solar, and all other renewable energy resources as defined in Ohio Revised Code Section 4928, in addition to clean coal, nuclear energy, and the cogeneration of electricity from waste heat sources.  To qualify, new projects involving wind, solar and other renewables must be under construction by January 1, 2012 and in service by January 1, 2013. All other qualified energy sources must be under construction by 2017.

One impetus for this change in tax treatment is that the current tangible tax rate energy companies pay is not competitive with other states. In Ohio, the tax rate for wind facilities stands at approximately $40,000 per megawatt, while solar is approximately $100,000 per megawatt. This compares to a range of $3,000 to $9,000 per megawatt in neighboring states.

The Ohio Department of Development will certify the exemption and base new payment rates (payment in lieu of taxes) on the number of Ohioans employed in the construction and installation of a qualified facility. Energy companies will have to comply with several other requirements including road repair, first responder training, and the establishment of university partnerships to promote the education, training and curriculum development of renewable energy industries.

The new rates will be as follows:

  • Solar - $7,000 per MW

All other facilities:

  • $6,000 per MW when 75% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.
  • $7,000 per MW when 60% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.
  • $8,000 per MW when 50% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.

The bill also addresses Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) property and provides that the installation of an energy facility will not cause the remaining portion of a CAUV tract to be ineligible for CAUV.

The new law may signify the beginning of wind development in Ohio’s rural communities. Three wind projects have already received an Ohio Power Siting Board certificate and may be the first projects situated to apply for the new tax exemptions. Information regarding the three approved wind projects and four pending projects can be found on the Ohio Power Siting Board website

Full text of S.B. 232 is available here.

Proposal would ensure that on-farm bioenergy activities qualify for CAUV and are exempt from zoning regulation.

A legislative proposal in the Ohio House of Representatives would include on-farm bioenergy production activities in two key provisions of Ohio law:  qualification for differential tax assessment under the Current Agricultural Use Valuation program and exemption from local zoning authority.  Representatives Pryor and Domenick introduced  House Bill 485 in mid-April with assistance from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.  The bill was referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, but no other action on the bill has taken place.

The proposal addresses "biodiesel production, biomass energy production, electric or heat energy production and biologically derived methane gas production"  where at least 50% of the starting material or feedstocks are from the same tract, lot or parcel on which the energy production takes place.  This 50% requirement targets on-farm energy production, where a farm is producing and processing the energy inputs, as long as no more than 50% of the supplementary inputs derive from other properties.

The bioenergy production activities that meet the 50% rule would be included in the CAUV' program's definition of "land devoted exclusively to agricultural use" in ORC 5713.30, thus guaranteeing eligibility for the CAUV property tax rate.  The bioenergy production activities would also become part of the definition of "agriculture" for purposes of county and township zoning, ORC 303.01 and ORC 519.01.  Because counties and townships have  limited zoning authority over "agriculture," the proposal would ensure that a county or township could not use zoning authority to prohibit the qualifying bioenergy production activities. 

H.B. 485 is available online, here.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Renewable Energy