The solar energy “boom” in Ohio continues to encounter opposition from local communities that would be home to large-scale solar developments. Yesterday, the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) denied a solar project application in Defiance County due to “general opposition by local citizens and governmental bodies.” Just before the holidays, a project in Greene County met the same fate. The cases now bring the number of solar project rejections in Ohio to three. Each one highlights the role community opposition can play in project denial, particularly when local governments are part of that opposition.
How does OPSB review a proposed solar project?
The OPSB is responsible for reviewing applications for solar energy projects that are over 50 MW in capacity. Currently, the members of the OPSB include the chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, directors of the EPA and departments of Agriculture, Development, Health, and Natural Resources, and a public member, along with four non-voting legislators. In the future, a county commissioner and township trustee will also join in the OPSB review process.
Ohio law requires the OPSB to analyze eight criteria when reviewing an application and deciding whether to grant a certificate to construct a major utility facility. The law states in Ohio Revised Code 4906.10(A) that OPSB shall not grant a certificate unless it finds and determines all of the following:
(1) The basis of the need for the facility if the facility is an electric transmission line or gas pipeline;
(2) The nature of the probable environmental impact;
(3) That the facility represents the minimum adverse environmental impact, considering the state of available technology and the nature and economics of the various alternatives, and other pertinent considerations;
(4) In the case of an electric transmission line or generating facility, that the facility is consistent with regional plans for expansion of the electric power grid of the electric systems serving this state and interconnected utility systems and that the facility will serve the interests of electric system economy and reliability;
(5) That the facility will comply with Chapters 3704., 3734., and 6111. of the Revised Code and all rules and standards adopted under those chapters and under section 4561.32 of the Revised Code. In determining whether the facility will comply with all rules and standards adopted under section 4561.32 of the Revised Code, the board shall consult with the office of aviation of the division of multi-modal planning and programs of the department of transportation under section 4561.341 of the Revised Code.
(6) That the facility will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity;
(7) In addition to the provisions contained in divisions (A)(1) to (6) of this section and rules adopted under those divisions, what its impact will be on the viability as agricultural land of any land in an existing agricultural district established under Chapter 929 of the Revised Code that is located within the site and alternative site of the proposed major utility facility. Rules adopted to evaluate impact under division (A)(7) of this section shall not require the compilation, creation, submission, or production of any information, document, or other data pertaining to land not located within the site and alternative site.
(8) That the facility incorporates maximum feasible water conservation practices as determined by the board, considering available technology and the nature and economics of the various alternatives.
Once all required elements of an application for a certificate are submitted and the application is complete, which can take many months, the OPSB staff and board begins its evaluation of the application to decide whether to grant the certificate. The review process, which might include intervening parties and multiple hearings, can last for many months or even a year or more. During that time, the OPSB must examine the application to determine if it meets the criteria in ORC 4906.10(A), relying on the expertise and recommendations of OPSB technical staff.
Recently approved solar projects
In December, the OPSB approved the application of Springwater Solar, a 155 MW solar project proposed to be built on 1,085 acres in Madison and Franklin counties, holding that the project met all of the criteria in ORC 4906.10(A). The decision brings the total of approved solar projects in Ohio to 34, representing 6,175 MW to be built on 63,554 acres, as illustrated on the map below. The map also displays additional pending applications totaling 3,139 MW and 29,076 acres.
Source: Ohio Power Siting Board, available at https://opsb.ohio.gov/about-us/resources/solar-farm-map-and-statistics.
Recently denied solar projects
Two solar project applications recently reviewed by OPSB did not receive a green light from the board. In December, the OPSB denied an application by Kingwood Solar that proposed to construct a 175 MW solar facility on 1,200 acres in Greene County. And on January 18, the OPSB denied a Cepheus Energy proposal to construct a 68 MW solar project on 649 acres in Defiance County. Before those two rejections, the OPSB had only previously denied one solar project application—the Birch Solar application rejected last October. In all three instances, the OPSB based its denial on ORC 4906.10(A)(6), stating that the projects would fail to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” due to general opposition.
In the Cepheus application, the board focused on local public interaction and participation, reviewing public testimony and 600 pages of public comments on the project. The board also noted that seven local governments had expressed concern or opposition to the project, including the Defiance Soil and Water Conservation District, Delaware and Sherwood Township trustees, Defiance County Economic Development Office, Defiance County Board of Commissioners, Delaware Township Fire Department, and Sherwood Area Economic Development Corporation.
The interests of these impacted local government bodies was “especially compelling” given that the organizations have the responsibility for preserving the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens, OPSB noted. Stating that there was “general opposition from local citizens and governmental bodies” and that local impacts would outweigh the project’s benefits, the board concluded that the project would not serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
The Cepheus rejection is similar to the Kingwood Solar project denied by OPSB in December. In that case, the board reviewed Kingwood’s assertions of the positive economic impacts and renewable energy choices the project would bring the community, then focused on local responses to the project. About 76% of those testifying during a 6.5-hour hearing were opposed to the projects and expressed an overarching concern that the project was not compatible with local land use plans and would “unalterably change the rural nature of the community.” The board also noted concerns by the Citizens for Greene Acres, a local group that intervened in the case, regarding the unique characteristics of the wildlife, parks, recreation, cultural, and historic areas that would be affected and the high density of residents that would reside within 500 feet of the project.
But once again, a critical concern for OPSB was the clear opposition of local governments impacted by the project. Cedarville Township, Xenia Township, Miami Township, and the Greene County Commissioners had all intervened in the case and adopted resolutions opposing the project. Although Kingwood Solar had agreed to address 39 conditions of development that it had offered in a Stipulation agreement, none of the local governments agreed to the Stipulation and instead opposed approval of the project. OPSB concluded that local opposition, “especially as demonstrated by Greene County and the three townships affected by the project,” warranted a conclusion that the project would not serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
Now what happens?
It’s typical in a rejection of a utility application for the developer applicant to exercise the right to request a rehearing. That has already occurred for the Birch Solar and Kingwood Solar projects, and we can expect a rehearing request for the Cepheus denial that just occurred on January 19. Interestingly, it was not just the solar developer that requested a rehearing of the Kingwood project application—Greene County, the affected townships, and the Citizens for Greene Acres also requested a rehearing. While those parties stated support for the decision of the OPSB that denied the certificate, they argue that in its findings, OPSB failed to determine that there were many other grounds for denying the certificate such as incompatibility with local land use planning, incapacitation of 1,025 acres of productive farmland, and negative local economic impacts.
Now we await the determinations by OPSB on the rehearing applications. The projects are each on hold, and construction cannot move forward unless the OPSB reverses its decision and approves the applications.
The recent decisions by OPSB leaves us asking a few questions. Does three rejections establish a trend in solar project denials due to community opposition? Did the communities involved in the 34 solar projects approved by OPSB oppose those projects? Do the local communities in the projects that are still pending before the OPSB oppose or support the projects, and how will community voices affect the review of those projects? While we don’t have the answers, we’ll keep monitoring developments in large-scale solar development as we consider these important questions.