This story is the sixth part of a series about the conflict over solar power in rural Midwestern communities, reported in partnership with ABC News.
WILLIAMSPORT, Ohio—Local opponents have succeeded in killing plans for a solar array in rural Ohio that now becomes one of the largest renewable energy projects in the country canceled because of resistance from nearby residents and their elected leaders.
Mark Schein, a farmer whose land near Williamsport would have hosted part of the project, learned of the change of plans in a brief phone call with the developer, EDF Renewables. The company decided to withdraw its proposal to build the 400-megawatt Chipmunk Solar project in the face of a grassroots campaign and in light of state regulators’ recent rejections of projects that have local opposition.
Chipmunk will be the second-largest solar array in the United States to have been submitted for regulatory approval and then withdrawn because of local opposition in at least two years. The largest was Battle Born Solar, an 850-megawatt project in Nevada that was canceled by its developer last year, according to a database maintained by the research firm Wood Mackenzie.
“I’m disappointed, and there are a couple people here in the community I don’t think I’ll speak to for the rest of my life,” Schein said, referring to neighbors who sunk the project.
EDF confirmed its plans in a filing Thursday afternoon with the Ohio Power Siting Board and in a letter to the Pickaway County government.
“While we were hopeful the project would come to fruition, the nature of development activities, which are sometimes out of our control, have forced us to make the difficult decision to no longer proceed,” the company said in the letter.
The opposition group said through its attorney that it had no comment.
With the demise of the project, the community is losing a projected $3.6 million per year in tax revenue, most of which would have gone to public schools. Property owners who signed leases with EDF will forgo a projected $3 million per year in lease payments, according to the company.
Based on an anticipated lifespan of 30 years, the cancellation means local governments in this rural county stand to lose about $100 million.
Last year at this time, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the Ohio Power Siting Board would approve the proposal in time for construction to begin in 2023. At that point, the board had never rejected a solar project.
The outlook changed, largely because of the efforts of local opponents who said solar power would hurt the community by taking farmland out of production, reducing property values and damaging soil and water. They campaigned through yard signs and lobbying public officials, and they succeeded in getting the county and township governments to pass resolutions opposing the project.
At the same time, the Power Siting Board diverged from its track record by rejecting a proposal near Lima, about 125 miles northwest of Williamsport. The October decision showed the board now viewed the opposition of local governments as grounds for voting against a plan, even if the application otherwise met all standards for approval.
The campaign in Williamsport, on the outer fringe of the Columbus metro area, is one of many examples of a growing resistance to renewable energy in rural America, a shift in attitudes that could make the transition to clean energy much more expensive and divisive, as each proposal threatens to turn into a prolonged fight.
The conflict represents a collision of social, economic and political trends. Decades of consolidation in ownership of farmland means that a large share of the land is controlled by an ever-smaller number of people. Those people can earn much more money from their land by leasing it to renewable energy developers than by renting it out for farming, but that means less land for people who make a living in the farm economy.
Former President Donald Trump’s strong support of oil, gas and coal, and what many saw as his climate change denialism—he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord—had the effect among some of his supporters of making wind and solar energy part of the country’s culture wars.
In the midst of these forces, many rural communities at the same time saw an influx of residents in new housing who wanted their neighbors on large farms to maintain the look and feel of a rural area, which in the eyes of many newcomers meant cornfields and not renewable energy. (The researchers Doug Bessette and Sarah Mills explored this dynamic in their 2021 paper “Farmers vs. Lakers.”)
The conflict might work itself out, with rural residents gradually getting used to co-existing with wind and solar power, but there is nothing gradual about the pace of solar’s expansion. Companies are racing to meet the demand for renewable energy and competing to obtain leases for the best land as the federal government and international organizations encourage a rapid shift away from the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
The result is a sense of frustration for people caught in the middle, like the Schein family.
Creating Community Ties
Chipmunk was among the top 15 or so largest solar projects being developed in the Midwest, according to Wood Mackenzie, and it is now the largest in the region to be rejected or withdrawn.
Matthew Sahd, a Wood Mackenzie solar analyst in New York, said Chipmunk’s cancellation is significant because of its size and because it is part of a pattern in Ohio of projects failing because of local opposition.
Chipmunk is the third Ohio project to be rejected or withdrawn since October; the other two, in the Dayton and Lima areas, were voted down by the Ohio Power Siting Board because of local opposition.
“It’s all just come to a tipping point with the amount of projects being developed and the amount of counties that have been developed,” Sahd said.
Even with the problems in Ohio, the state remains a hotbed of solar development and regulators have approved many more projects this year than they’ve rejected. Demand for solar in the state is high because of companies like Amazon that are buying electricity to meet targets for renewable energy usage, and utilities that are aiming to meet corporate goals or government requirements.
“Ohio is going to definitely be a top 10 state for renewables buildout through 2030,” Sahd said. “It’s just going to be (a question of) which developers can stand the test of time and create those community ties early so that their projects can get through.”
3 Percent of 300,000 Acres
Even with the cancellation of the Chipmunk project, solar is already part of daily life in Pickaway County, which includes Williamsport.
On a drive near his house last week, before he knew of the cancellation, Mark Schein pointed north at the construction crews working on the 200-megawatt Atlanta Farms project, one of two large solar arrays in the county that the state approved in previous years.
A few miles to the south was the 274-megawatt Yellowbud Solar, which straddles the line with the next county, and is nearly finished with construction.
It was a sunny day, with temperatures just above freezing.
“I’ll take snow and 18 degrees, but I don’t want 10 below,” Mark said. “And I don’t want a frickin’ two inches of ice.”
The developers of the two solar projects issued their proposals before there was much opposition. The public hearings for both, held in 2020, were quick and mostly uneventful.
But then other projects followed. In addition to Chipmunk, there are two other pending applications for utility-scale solar arrays in the county: Circleville, with 70 megawatts, and Scioto Farms, with 110 megawatts.
Chipmunk, whose details became public in 2021, was the one that galvanized the opposition to solar and contributed to the fear by opponents that the projects would keep coming, and keep getting larger, until there wasn’t any farmland left to develop.
But driving on country roads next to the Atlanta Farms and Yellowbud projects, Schein observed that the solar proposals, while large, were still tiny compared to the vastness of local farmland. If all projects were built, including Chipmunk, they would occupy about 3 percent of the county’s roughly 300,000 acres of farmland, based on figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the project applications.
As he saw it, the biggest threat to the county’s character was the growth of housing for people commuting to Columbus. He saw solar as a partial antidote because the areas with projects would be off-limits for housing for decades.
Also, he saw solar as a financial and environmental win for the region. It would provide millions of dollars in new taxes for schools and local governments and reduce the strain on farmland because the areas with solar wouldn’t need fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
One of the reasons he wanted to make this drive was to show that Yellowbud, a project that opponents had said had turned farmland into a virtual moonscape, was looking much more presentable these days.
The early construction phase had been a mess of muddy land and standing water. But grass had already grown to cover some of the ugliest spots, and some of the project’s borders now had landscaping to limit the visibility of the panels.
Schein drove through the village of Williamsport, which is just south of the Chipmunk project area and his home. He passed Williamsport United Methodist church, which his family has attended for generations.
When the solar debate began to intensify late in 2021, Mark’s son, George, a lawyer who lives in Williamsport, stopped going to church because he felt hostility from some of the other families there about the solar project. Mark stopped going too, partly out of solidarity with George. This year, Mark has shown up a couple times, but is no longer a regular.
But Mark’s wife, Toni, never stopped, even if it meant she was sitting by herself.
Rural Culture, Real Estate Concerns
Opponents of the solar project got the result they wanted.
The group, called Pickaway County Citizens Against Industrial Solar on Farmland, waged a highly visible campaign, including yard signs throughout the area, T-shirts and a booth at the county fair.
The opponents united around the idea that the county needs to preserve the culture and jobs of farming, and that solar is contrary to that culture. They have a long list specifics of why they believe solar is an unacceptable use for farmland, including concerns that solar is ugly and will lead to a drop in property values, and that the panels contain harmful substances that will leak into the ground and water and threaten the health of humans and animals.
The opponents downplayed the potential for income from the project, arguing that solar is an unreliable resource that couldn’t be counted on to meet the developer’s projections for taxes, and that local governments and schools already had adequate support.
“We do not need additional tax revenue,” said a letter from the group to the Power Siting Board.
The opponents also have noted that most of the land for the solar projects is owned by estates and land trusts controlled by people who no longer live in the community. The Scheins, who have a relatively small 250 acres, are an exception since they still live on the land.
Supporters of the project have been frustrated with the talk of property values and risks to health because much of the evidence for this comes from sources that are designed to stoke opposition to solar. The bulk of research from universities and national labs has shown little effect on property values and negligible risks to health.
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Supporters also lamented that the tax benefits got little discussion locally, as school officials chose not to take a side in the debate. The result, the supporters said, is the loss of a once-in-a-generation windfall that could have lowered taxes while improving education.
After more than a year of campaigning, the opponents dominated the argument.
Mark and Toni Schein have dealt with the conflict in different ways. Mark has taken it personally how he kept hearing second-hand that he’s being criticized for his role in the solar proposal.
Toni, a retired dental hygienist, has tried her best to ignore it and go about her life.
“You have been avoiding the community,” she said, seated with her husband at their kitchen table.
He said that wasn’t entirely true. He described a recent trip to the other side of the county to see his grandson in a youth basketball game. He got a chance to chat with a bunch of people. “It was the best visit with anybody around here in six months,” he said.
But he admitted being struck by how he didn’t feel like he could do that any more at games closer to home.
Did he regret signing up to host the solar project now that they know about the conflict it would cause and that, in the end, it wouldn’t happen?
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Mark said.