Solar and wind energy development is thriving in Ohio, and most of that development will occur on leased farmland. Programs in the newly enacted federal Inflation Reduction Act might amplify renewable energy development even more. The decision to lease land for wind and solar development is an important one for a farmland owner, and one that remains with a farm for decades. It’s also a very controversial issue in Ohio today, with farmers and community residents lining up on both sides of the controversy. For these reasons, when a landowner receives a “letter of intent” for wind or solar energy development, we recommend taking a careful course of action. Here are a few considerations that might help.
Purpose and legal effect of a letter of intent. Typically, a letter of intent for renewable energy development purposes is not a binding contract, but it might be. The purposes of the letter of intent are usually to provide initial information about a potential solar lease and confirm a landowner’s interest in discussing the possibility of a solar lease. Unless there is compensation or a similar benefit provided to the landowner and the letter states that it’s a binding contract, signing a letter of intent wouldn’t have the legal effect of committing the landowner to a solar lease. But the actual language in the letter of intent would determine its legal effect, and it is possible that the letter would offer a payment and contain terms that bind a landowner to a leasing situation.
Attorney review is critical. To ensure a clear understanding of the legal effect and terms of the letter of intent, a landowner should review the letter with an attorney. An attorney can explain the significance of terms in the letter, which might include an “exclusivity” provision preventing the landowner from negotiating with any other solar developer for a certain period of time, “confidentiality” terms that prohibit a landowner from sharing information about the letter with anyone other than professional advisors, “assignment” terms that allow the other party to assign the rights to another company, and initial details about the proposed project and lease such as location, timeline, and payments. Working through the letter with an attorney won’t require a great deal of time or cost but will remove uncertainties about the legal effect and terms of the letter of intent.
Negotiating an Option and Lease would be the next steps. If a landowner signs a letter of intent, the next steps will be to negotiate an Option and a Lease. It’s typical for a letter of intent to summarize the major terms the developer intends to include in the Option and Lease, which can provide a helpful “heads up” on location, payments and length of the lease. As with the letter of intent, including an attorney in the review and negotiation of the Option and Lease is a necessary practice for a landowner. We also recommend a full consideration of other issues at this point, such as the effect on the farmland, farm business, family, taxes, estate plans, other legal interests, and neighbor relations. Read more in our “Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing” and “Farmland Owner’s Solar Leasing Checklist”.
New laws in Ohio might prohibit the development. A new law effective in October of 2021 gives counties in Ohio new powers to restrict or reject wind and solar facilities that are 50 MW or more in size. A county can designate “restricted areas” where large-scale developments cannot locate and can reject a specific project when it’s presented to the county. The new law also allows citizens to organize a referendum on a restricted area designation and submit the designation to a public vote. Smaller facilities under 5-MW are not subject to the new law. Several counties have acted on their new authorities under the law in response to community concerns and opposition to wind and solar facilities. Community opposition and whether a county has or will prohibit large-scale wind and solar development are additional factors landowners should make when considering a letter of intent. Learn more about these new laws in our Energy Law Library.
It's okay to slow it down. A common reaction to receiving a letter of intent is that the landowner must act quickly or could lose the opportunity. Or perhaps the document itself states a deadline for responding. A landowner shouldn’t let those fears prevent a thorough assessment of the letter of intent. If an attorney can’t meet until after the deadline, for example, a landowner should consider contacting the development and advising that the letter is under review but meeting the deadline isn’t possible. That’s a much preferred course of action to signing the letter without a review just to meet an actual or perceived deadline.
For more information about energy leases in Ohio, refer to our Energy Law Library on the Farm Office website at https://farmoffice.osu.edu/our-library/energy-law.