Inside Clean Energy: The Solar Boom Arrives in Ohio

Overwhelming demand is turning the state into a solar hotbed, despite a decade of policies hostile toward renewables.

Solar photovoltaic power plant farm installation on Long Island, New York. Ohio now ranks 28th in the country in installed solar capacity, but ranks 14th in projected new capacity coming online in the next five years. Credit: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Solar photovoltaic power plant farm installation on Long Island, New York. Ohio now ranks 28th in the country in installed solar capacity, but ranks 14th in projected new capacity coming online in the next five years. Credit: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Right now, Ohio has barely 100 megawatts of utility-scale solar power.

By this time next year, it is likely to have more than 400 megawatts.

And if every project that has filed papers with state regulators gets built, the total would exceed 5,000 megawatts by the mid-2020s.

So what’s going on here?

Ohio’s solar market is booming because of flat and inexpensive land and high demand for solar from companies that are trying to meet clean energy commitments. And it is happening despite years of hostility toward renewable energy on the part of state lawmakers and the governor.

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Demand is “just overwhelming,” said Dan Sawmiller, who closely follows Ohio solar projects in his role on the local staff of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You’re seeing buyers go into contract with these projects before they’re even permitted, because the demand is outpacing supply.”

The most recent example is from Amazon, which last week said it will buy electricity from a planned 300-megawatt solar array in Union County, on the northwestern fringe of the Columbus metro area, even though the project remains early in the approval process with the Ohio Power Siting Board. The developer, Acciona of Spain, is one of many companies now doing their first projects in the state.

Adam Stratton, who manages Acciona’s solar development in the United States and Canada, told me that Ohio has an enviable combination of available land and demand from corporations with local operations that want to buy renewable energy.

But for now, the largest operational solar array in the state is just 20 megawatts, located in Bowling Green near Toledo.

It will soon be dethroned by two projects that are under construction and are on track to go online in 2021: the 200-megawatt Hillcrest project in Southern Ohio, and the 150-megawatt Hardin project in west-central Ohio.

Ohio Solar Boom

To put this in some national perspective, Ohio now ranks 28th in the country in installed solar capacity, but ranks 14th in projected new capacity coming online in the next five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie.

In the Midwest, Ohio trails only Indiana and Illinois in the five-year forecast.

I should note that projections are tricky because it is difficult to know which projects will actually get built. Some proposals are likely to run into trouble getting permits or obtaining financing, while new proposals continue to be announced. It is safe to say that a lot of solar power will be built in Ohio, but nobody knows how much.

The idea of Ohio becoming a solar hotbed is remarkable considering the last decade of mostly hostile state policies. 

In 2014, Gov. John Kasich signed Senate Bill 310, which made it much easier for utilities to meet state standards for buying renewable energy, including a repeal of requirements that some of those renewable energy projects be located within the state.

In 2019, Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 6, which eliminated the renewable energy requirements altogether as part of a plan that subsidized nuclear and coal power. While clean energy advocates loathed this bill, they did like a provision that gives some state aid to new solar arrays. The legislation is now best known for its role in an ongoing bribery scandal that has ensnared former House Speaker Larry Householder, among others.

Meanwhile, solar power has continued to get less expensive, becoming cost-competitive with coal. And, companies are increasingly likely to make commitments to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, usually by making agreements to buy electricity from solar and wind projects.

As demand has grown for solar power, Ohio became an attractive location because of large amounts of available land and accessible connections to the grid. Some of the grid connections are there to serve coal-fired power plants that have now closed, leaving unused capacity for interstate power lines.

But Ohio’s solar boom is leading to some growing pains. Some residents in areas with proposed projects are raising concerns that the projects will ruin their views and potentially harm the way water flows on nearby farms by damaging networks of drain tiles.

“We are 100 percent against this,” said Suzanne Schilling, one of many public comments filed with regulators in opposition to the Acciona project. “We don’t want to look at these right out our front window.”

Developers like Acciona know that they must meet requirements that a project not harm the flow of water and have minimal negative effects on the surrounding community, part of an extensive review by state regulators.

But for residents, this kind of development is new and sometimes scary.

The opposition is one of the downsides of sudden change, as Ohio goes from having almost no utility-scale solar to having a lot of it. And the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, said Sawmiller.

“The economic, social and health benefits that come with solar development in Ohio are significant, and I’m glad to see it’s going to rural communities like the one I grew up in,” he said.

Vehicle Battery Prices Plummeted in 2020, Approaching Cost-Parity with Gasoline

The falling price of solar panels is just one part of a larger economic shift that is supercharging the transition to clean energy.

Another big part is the falling price of batteries. Bloomberg NEF said Wednesday that the global average price for lithium-ion battery packs was $137 per kilowatt-hour this year, down from $157 per kilowatt-hour in 2019, according to the new price survey.

While that’s a big decrease, the research firm had projected the average would get to $132 this year.

BloombergNEF analysts say they now expect the average to drop to $101 by 2023, close to  the $100 level that researchers say will make electric vehicles cost about the same as gasoline vehicles.

“This is one of the most remarkable technology stories in the world,” said Colin McKerracher, head of transport analysis for BloombergNEF, on Twitter. “And it doesn’t stop here.”

Analysts found examples of batteries that are already selling for less than $100 for electric buses in China.

The falling prices of lithium-ion batteries have broad implications for the clean energy transition, reducing the costs of battery storage systems and EVs.

The 2020 average price is down 89 percent from the average in 2010, which was more than $1,100 per kilowatt-hour. Prices have fallen because companies are becoming more efficient in their manufacturing methods and gaining economies of scale as the demand for batteries has increased.

There are opportunities for manufacturers to push prices far below $100 as companies develop new technologies with the promise to cut the costs of raw materials.

One of those technologies is behind “solid-state” batteries, which use a solid material instead of a liquid to move lithium ions between electrodes. California-based QuantumScape is one of the companies attracting attention and investment for its progress in developing this kind of battery.

BloombergNEF is projecting that the global average will fall to $58 by 2030, a number that would give EVs a large cost advantage.

As always with forecasts, there are many factors that could make the actual results different from the outlook. But the trend is unmistakable.

Des Moines Considers 24/7 Clean Energy Plan

I wrote a few months ago about Google adopting a policy to move to 24/7 renewable energy, a groundbreaking development that goes far beyond typical corporate commitments that allow for use of some fossil fuels.

Now the city government in Des Moines, Iowa, is looking at something similar, which would be the most ambitious clean energy plan by any city I’ve ever seen. City leaders met last week to talk about the proposed resolution.

The State Capital of Iowa reflects the sunset on Nov. 6, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: David Greedy/Getty Images
The State Capital of Iowa reflects the sunset on Nov. 6, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: David Greedy/Getty Images

Josh Mandelbaum, a city council member who also is an attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, is one of the chief supporters of the measure.

“We’re the capital city, we’re the largest city in the state,” he said. “When we act, we have the opportunity to lead and bring others with us.”

He is facing doubts raised by the utility MidAmerican Energy, which would need to make major changes to its operations if the plan was adopted. At last week’s meeting, a representative from the utility said the policy could lead to a spike in costs for consumers, depending on how it is implemented.

The resolution says Des Moines would set a goal of getting to 100 percent renewable energy on a 24/7 basis by 2030. The city would need to have a supply of renewable energy and energy storage to meet its needs around the clock.

This is different from a more common type of commitment in which a company or government entity buys enough renewable energy to cover the equivalent of 100 percent of its consumption, but on a daily basis is getting more renewable energy than it needs at times, and still relying on fossil fuel power from the grid at other times. 

I grew up in the Des Moines area, and feel some local pride to see that some people in the city are on the leading edge of clean energy policy.

But I also see how this resolution may be difficult to pass, especially if the politically powerful utility wants to object. Mandelbaum is hoping that the city council will vote on the resolution as soon as next month.

The larger point is that it says something about the pace of progress in energy policy that this plan is even being discussed in a serious way.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.