WILLIAMSPORT, Ohio—On a weekday morning in May, Mark Schein drove his truck about a mile up the road and rang the doorbell of Melvin Steck and his son and caretaker Doug Steck. Mark stepped into the kitchen, saw Melvin, who is 101, and let out a joyous, “Hey there.”
Melvin, who is hard of hearing and doesn’t talk much, smiled and offered Mark some peanut M&M’s from a giant-sized bag that was in its usual place in the middle of the table.
Melvin is one of the last of a generation that farmed alongside Mark’s father, and someone who can remember an era when farm families and communities relied on each other as a matter of economic survival.
Of the dozen or so property owners who leased land for the proposed Chipmunk Solar project, only three live on the land, including the Schein and Steck families. The rest of the properties are owned by the family estates of farmers, with out-of-town mailing addresses.
The solar supporters in this room knew they were outnumbered in the community by people who oppose the project, but they remained steadfast in their belief that they should be able to do what they choose with their land. They were counting on lease payments from the project to provide financial stability that would be in contrast to a lifetime living at the mercy of the weather and crop prices.
Mark, 68, is a retired farmer. Doug, 72, owns a small trucking company. Unlike Mark, Doug is eager to engage with people about the project, including the opponents. This has led to tense moments, like an argument that ended with Doug nose to nose with a solar opponent at a township meeting last year.
“I just want them to use facts,” Doug said. “Don’t embellish. Don’t quote somebody else. Use facts.”
He took a seat at the table. He had a hint of red in his blond mustache, with almost no gray. Like his father, he could pass for a decade or two younger than his age.
And he had an important accessory: his three-ring binder, packed with academic papers, news articles, spreadsheets and handwritten notes from government meetings, about the benefits of solar in general and specifics about the current solar proposal.
He aimed to be the community’s fact-checker, but he had found that some opponents of solar viewed him as self-serving rather than helpful. It was indicative of a broader conflict in rural America over what to believe as renewable energy developers seek vast quantities of land for projects and some residents resist.
EDF Renewables is working to develop the 400-megawatt Chipmunk project, a small part of which would be on the Steck farm. The company has an application pending before the Ohio Power Siting Board; one of the state office’s key questions is whether the community wants the project.
A well-organized campaign has sought to answer with an emphatic, “No.” Opponents have printed yard signs and pamphlets and bought newspaper ads, all arguing that solar would ruin the region’s agricultural character and tank property values.
Notably absent from the debate was almost any mention of climate change.
An upcoming public hearing was an opportunity for the opponents to show their strength, and Doug and Mark planned to be there.
‘Life Is Not Perfect’
Melvin began farming when he was 8, walking behind mules in his parents’ fields. Doug, his only son, grew up driving a tractor and feeding livestock.
Doug knows the feeling of precarity that comes with a life in agriculture. He once had his own farm, separate from his father’s, only to lose it in the early 1980s amid high interest rates and punishing weather.
He remembers a summer day when a dark cloud rolled in and hail began to fall. His corn had been eight feet tall, and he watched from his house as the balls of ice leveled the crop, killing all of it in less than an hour.
He sat there, with the electricity knocked out by the storm, and knew that the loss of the crop meant he had almost no way to pay the debts he had racked up with a recent expansion.
“I had spontaneous shaking, crying, vomiting for three years,” he said. “I’ve already been through the stress of cycles of knowing how bad it can get. Life is not perfect.”
After that, he found different ways to make a living, including door-to-door sales. Much later, he bought a tractor-trailer to do jobs on behalf of freight companies. He was successful enough that he built a small business, Steck Trucking, that now has additional trucks and drivers. Since he became his father’s caretaker, he lets others do all the driving.
His experience losing the farm is one of the reasons he was receptive to the solar company’s offer of a guaranteed income that would last for decades, an income that would be about five times more than the family would make from renting the land to other farmers.
The project’s opponents have included other farm families who argue that solar is an industrial use for farmland that will harm the community. But many of the opponents are people who have houses in farm country but are not farmers and do not own farmland.
EDF has led a low-key campaign to build support for the project. There are no pro-solar signs to compete with the anti-solar ones.
EDF said in an email that it has “been very involved in the community by way of solar education, consistent project updates at local township and county meetings, public information meetings” and $50,000 in donations to local civic and charitable groups.
While EDF is taking those steps, the land owners who would host the project have not been a big part of the public outreach. As Mark puts it, “I’m gonna keep my yap shut.”
The understated nature of the pro-solar side has made Doug stand out as one of the only people who shows up to lots of meetings and makes his case.
Objections, Rebuttals and Hypocrisy
Doug opened his binder to a page that summarized the objections to the project that he tallied from November 2021 to January 2022, based on comments submitted to the Ohio Power Siting Board and spoken at public meetings.
The top objection, mentioned in one form or another 30 times, was that people don’t like the change to the visual landscape.
Listen to Dan Gearino and collaborator Tracy Wholf explore divisions over solar in rural Ohio, on ABC News’ Start Here podcast.
The second most common objection, mentioned 26 times, was that the presence of solar would lead to a decrease in property values.
Next, with 17 mentions, were concerns about the loss of farmland. This was nearly tied, with 16 mentions, with concerns about the loss of wildlife.
After that, with 15 mentions, was a category Doug summarized as “environmental concerns,” which included talk about harmful elements leaching from panels into the soil and water, which would harm people and animals.
He said his goal was to understand and investigate the objections, with an open mind about what may be valid concerns. For example, he understood the perspectives of people who don’t like the idea of a major shift in the view out their back door.
But he noted that only a tiny share of the population lives within sight of the project. And, he thought that once the panels got built, people would get used to them.
Meanwhile, the worries about a major drop in property values were bogus, he said. He has looked at key studies on the subject and found that solar development leads to, at worst, small decreases in property values.
As for environmental concerns, this was where he saw hypocrisy. Depending on the manufacturer, solar panels may contain some harmful materials. But there was little evidence that the panels would leak those materials into the environment at a scale that would affect human or animal health.
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The hypocrisy was that many opponents of the project were talking about leaks from solar panels while they had no problem dumping tons of fertilizers and chemicals on farmland, practices that are much more destructive to the environment. He made this point with a spreadsheet showing the tonnage of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides placed on his family’s 285 acres over a 10-year period.
“That’s all poison,” he said.
Doug was hopeful that having a solar array on the land would allow for a much needed period for the soil to recover, with native grasses allowed to grow underneath. He expected that harmful runoff from his family’s land would decrease substantially.
Mark and Doug felt like the case for solar was so strong that some neighbors could be convinced, and wondered if objections were coming from a vocal minority.
They were about to find out.
On a Wednesday evening, Doug and Mark walked into the Circleville High School auditorium. Circleville, known for its annual pumpkin festival, is a short drive from Williamsport. The school was hosting a public hearing held by the Ohio Power Siting Board to aid in its decision about the region’s solar projects.
Officially, this hearing was about the Scioto Farms solar project, one of the five proposed or under construction in the region, but many people wanted to talk about other projects, like Chipmunk.
The crowd was teeming with solar opponents.
State officials sat at a table up on the stage, with a red curtain behind them. The state delegation included Jenifer French, chair of the board. She was joined by an administrative law judge who was overseeing the case and a court reporter.
The third person to speak was Garrett Wells, 12, an opponent of the project who was shorter than the microphone stand.
“We love where we live,” he said. “My family has always farmed, and I hope to one day grow up and farm.” The crowd roared with applause.
Some speakers broke down in tears, talking about how their property values will plummet and they will have nothing to leave to their children and grandchildren.
Some talked about health effects, including Chris Weaver, who lives about 100 yards from the project.
“I’m a firm believer in property owners being able to do what they want with their property. I really am,” Weaver said. “Until it defaces my property (and) quite possibly destroys my health.”
Doug and Mark exchanged glances and sunk into their seats.
Among the few people who favored the project were a member of the electricians’ union who said the project would lead to good union jobs, and someone who no longer lived in the area but still owned local farmland that his family had leased. The opponents outnumbered the supporters nearly 10 to one.
Doug and Mark were contributing to the one-sided nature of the event. Neither of them signed up to talk because they thought the comments would be limited to the Scioto Farms project.
Mark adjusted his hearing aid because he was having trouble making out what people were saying. He could feel the hostility all around him.
He nudged Doug and turned his head to motion toward the door. Doug nodded yes.
“I’d seen enough,” Mark said the next day.
A decision on the Chipmunk project is likely to come by early 2023. But that night, it was clear that the opponents were winning.
They had succeeded in casting solar, an essential resource for the transition to clean energy, as a destroyer of community, and Doug wondered if there was any way back from that.
Correction: Jenifer French is chair of the Ohio Power Siting Board and had been a county common pleas court judge. A previous version of this story misspelled her first name and listed an incorrect court for her prior role.