First large-scale solar energy project denied in Ohio

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Friday, October 28th, 2022
Map of portion of Birch Solar 1 project at OPSB

Highlighting a continuing trend in opposition to solar energy development across the state, the Ohio Power Siting Board has for the first time denied the application of a large-scale solar energy project.  After a string of 34 OPSB-approved projects since 2018, the Birch Solar 1 project became the board's first denial when the OPSB determined the project would not serve the public interest.  

The proposed project.  The Birch Solar application proposed a 300 MW facility in Allen and Auglaize counties with solar panels on 1,410 acres and a total project area of 2,345 acres.  Of the total, 2,132 acres are currently in agricultural use. The project would also include 22.5 miles of gravel access roads, an operations and maintenance building, underground and aboveground electric collection lines, meteorological towers, weather stations, inverters and transformers, a collector substation, a point of interconnection switchyard, and a 345-kilovolt generation interconnection electric transmission line. A six-foot cedar post perimeter fence would secure the project, evergreen fencing would limit impacts to neighboring viewsheds, and solar panels would be setback a minimum of 300 feet from adjacent non-participating residences and roadways.

OPSB’s review.  The OPSB had the duty of reviewing the project application to determine whether it satisfied the legal criteria in Ohio Revised Code 4906.10(A) for siting a major utility in Ohio.  For a solar project, the criteria includes parts (A)(2) through (8):

  1. The nature of the probable environmental impact;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. That the facility will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity;
  6. 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;
  7. 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.

The “public interest” factor and public opposition.  OPSB focused most of its analysis of the Birch Solar application on part (A)(6), that the facility “will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” The board explained that the question of whether an application serves the public interest “must be examined through a broad lens and in consideration of impacts, local and otherwise, from the Project.”  The OPSB acknowledged that there can be potential public benefits to a proposed solar facility such as energy generation, economic benefits from employment and tax revenues, air quality and climate improvements, protecting landowner rights, and preserving agricultural land use.  But the board stated that it must weigh a project’s benefits against its impacts, especially impacts to those living near it.  To do so, the board reviewed the application, evidence, and comments on Birch Solar and identified a primary concern:  uniform and consistent public opposition to the project. 

The two counties and four townships where Birch Solar would locate all opposed the project.  Acting under new legal authority granted by Ohio’s legislature last year, Auglaize County has restricted large-scale solar development in all incorporated parts of the county and Allen County has established most of the county as restricted from solar development.  The Birch Solar application is unaffected by the designations since it was in process and grandfathered in before the new law, but OPSB noted that had the new law been in place, the county restrictions would have prohibited the project. 

OPSB also reviewed evidence submitted by Allen County officials stating that there would be 1,278 residences, four schools, and six churches within one mile of Birch Solar’s project area, and that the residents shared concerns about the project’s lack of dedicated local power; its impact on land use, property values, drinking water, groundwater, drainage, and roadways; its decommissioning plan; and negotiations on distributing “payment in lieu of taxes” revenue to local governments.

Of the hundreds of public comments submitted on the Birch Solar application, OPSB determined that approximately 80% of the comments were in opposition to the project and that opposition reasons were similar to those raised by the local governments.  Birch Solar argued that it had agreed to 40 stipulated conditions that would address opposition concerns and had offered to make “good neighbor” payments of $10--$50,000 and property value adjustments to adjacent landowners.  Even so, the OPSB concluded that Birch Solar would not serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity requirement because of “unanimous and consistent opposition to the Project by the government entities whose constituents are impacted by the Project.”

What’s next?  The battle may not be over.  Birch Solar has the right to request a rehearing and reconsideration of its application within 30 days of the OPSB decision.  For now, the board’s denial of the project might invigorate opposition groups that have formed in areas where projects are proposed.  But note that on the same day OPSB denied Birch Solar, it approved Pleasant Prairie Solar in Franklin County, a 250 MW facility with a 2,400 acre project area and Harvey Solar, a 350 MW project of 2,630 acres in Licking County.   And 15 more projects totaling 3,266 MW are currently pending before the OPSB.  Whether local opposition will prohibit any of those projects is an issue we’ll be watching.

Read more about the Birch Solar project in the OPSB case docket at https://opsb.ohio.gov/cases/20-1605-el-bgn.