This story is the fourth in a series about the conflict over solar power in rural Ohio.
LIMA, Ohio—When Michael Wildermuth was growing up here, the snow sometimes had black specks in it because of pollution from the city’s heavy industry.
Now retired from a career managing computer systems for public schools, he started a nonprofit last year to support a solar farm proposal, partly to help the region begin to make up for its history of environmental damage.
He is recognizable for his thick white beard and his fondness for dark sweaters. The closest he gets to swearing is saying “jeepers.”
On a recent drive, he started in his suburban cul-de-sac and headed down to West Breese Road, his neighborhood’s main drag. The radio in his black Chrysler minivan was tuned to the classical music station out of Toledo.
The housing subdivisions faded into farmland. He pointed to a cornfield off to the left, where the crop had been harvested, leaving the remnants of stalks and leaves. This, about 300 feet back from the road, was where a developer had proposed to build the Birch Solar project.
Wildermuth started his group, Allen Auglaize Coalition for Reasonable Energy, because he felt like the local debate over the solar project—which would be located in parts of Allen and Auglaize counties—had been hijacked by an opposition that relied on scary scenarios that were largely unsupported by facts.
“Somebody needs to stand up and say, ‘The emperor has no clothes here,’” he said.
He felt sympathy for his neighbors who were leery of a project that would change the look and feel of parts of the community. But his sympathy had limits when weighed against the benefits for the environment and for funding of local governments and schools.
He was describing a tension that exists across the country as officials want to be attentive to local concerns, but find that doing so leads to a situation in which renewable energy opponents gain supersize powers to kill projects. The dispute gets fuel from the sharing of social media posts that raise alarm about the effects on human health and property values, even if the evidence supporting those concerns is thin at best.
About 120 miles to the southeast, in Williamsport, Ohio, similar opposition has coalesced around a different project, Chipmunk Solar. The people involved in that conflict have not been paying much attention to the Birch Solar fight in Lima, but how it’s resolved will cast a shadow on the Chipmunk case and all others in which there is strong pushback from local governments.
Birch Solar is a test of whether state regulators are going to reject a proposal solely because of local opposition.
Places like Lima are attractive for renewable energy development following a steady decrease in the costs of wind and solar and a rising need to move away from fossil fuels to address climate change. But rural communities are increasingly showing that they will resist the projects. The conflict touches on a broader cultural divide between urban and rural communities, and Democrats and Republicans.
In this fraught environment, expertise and facts seem to matter less than before.
Pastoral Fields or Industrial Zones?
When Wildermuth looks at the area where the 300-megawatt project would be built, he doesn’t see a pastoral scene, which is how opponents sometimes describe it. He sees a mish-mash of land uses in which some property owners should have a right to lease their land for solar if they want to.
He pointed to his left at a big electric substation that would be next to the solar project. To his right was a private home that had roughly a dozen cars parked in the yard. Further down the road was a heating and air conditioning company, which was close to a pet boarding business.
The road ended at a fork and he turned left. He was traveling along a big rectangle that contained the entirety of the proposal’s 1,400 or so acres.
Wildermuth was born and raised in a working-class area of Lima, a city whose population is now about 35,000. He went to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then came back home. He now lives with his wife just outside of the Lima city limits in Shawnee Township, which is where most of the solar project would be located.
His group has 12 members. About half them are property owners who leased their land for the project and stand to make money from it. The other half, including him, are involved because they support clean energy and would like to see an increase in funding for local governments and schools.
As he drove deeper into the rural part of the township, the industrial businesses stopped and the houses got much larger, with yards that faced the farm fields.
“This guy obviously has a lot of money,” Wildermuth said, gesturing at one of the largest houses.
He turned north, toward Lima and the industrial zone between the solar project and the city.
He passed the stacks of the Nutrien plant that makes nitrogen fertilizer. Next door is the oldest business in the region, the Cenovus Lima Refinery, an oil processing plant that supplies much of the gasoline used in Ohio and surrounding states. From a distance, the stacks of the refinery and the stacks of the fertilizer plant blend into a kind of skyline, with plumes of white steam rising from some of the towers.
The refinery dates back to 1886, when this part of Ohio was at the center of an oil boom. The complex has changed ownership several times, including a long stretch when it was owned by BP.
Wildermuth passed below a railroad overpass which is the border between Shawnee Township and Lima. On the other side is South Lima, the neighborhood built to house the workers who would walk to the industrial area.
“So it’s like, ‘We don’t want to put the solar farm out there as a big industrial thing, because that could ruin the rich people’s sensibilities in their view,’” he said. “But here in Lima, where the prevailing westerly winds drive the pollutants over here into South Lima, it’s like, ‘Wow, you know, those are poor people. Who cares about them?’”
He drove up to an abandoned red brick house. This was where he was raised.
‘I Beg of You … Please Deny This Project’
Almost a year earlier, on the evening of Nov. 4, 2021, about 150 people crowded into a function room at the county fairgrounds in Lima. They were there for a hearing organized by the regulators who would decide whether the Birch Solar project gets built, the Ohio Power Siting Board.
Wildermuth and his wife, Sharon, took their seats for what would turn into one of the longest hearings the board had ever held. In the front rows were lawyers for the developer, Lightsource BP, and other parties in the case.
First up was Thomas Hull, who lives on West Breese Road and described himself as a mental health professional.
“This massive solar field will cause an increase of mental health issues (for) children and adults,” he said. “In urban communities, the research has identified that a decrease and elimination of green space, natural occurring landscapes correlate with an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide with all ages, especially our children.”
The second speaker was Kathy Hull, Thomas’ wife.
“The Birch Solar project resembles a popular movie, The Devil Has a Name,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve watched it or not, but it’s a movie, 2019, where big corporations poison the land and surrounding lands, killing human life and wildlife.”
The mood was tense at first, and there was a smattering of applause for some of the initial speakers against the project. But then the hearing settled into a rhythm of mostly silent listening.
Sandra Little, who lives near the site, spoke about what she would be losing if the project got built.
“I have spent hours looking out my front window to the beauty of farmland, seeing wildlife, and knowing that my home was a safe, nontoxic place to live,” she said. “I would like to pass my home onto my family to have for generations to come and I don’t want them subject to the problems this proposed solar field of doom will cause.”
She warned of the “cancer-causing chemicals and deadly poisons” that would leak from solar panels into the soil and water.
Another recurring concern expressed by opponents was that the project was being foisted on a township government that had spent years crafting its own plans for how to manage development in the area.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to harm, it’s going to affect, it’s going to change the whole structure where we live, you know, of the community,” said John Newland, an accountant who also was fiscal officer for the Shawnee Township government.
“I beg of you … please deny this project,” he concluded. “We do not want it in the Shawnee community.”
It went on for nearly six hours, with about two-thirds of the speakers against the project. Some people cried as they testified.
Wildermuth sat and listened, tired and uncomfortable in his hard seat on a concrete floor. He felt like the anguish he heard was real, and he sympathized with how disconcerting it would be for someone to adapt a big change in the view from their back porch. But he also knew the level of alarm wasn’t based on solid evidence, and that many people were repeating things they had read on misleading social media posts and anti-solar websites.
At the same time, he felt gratitude for the people who testified in favor of the project. They included Frank Caprilla, co-owner of the pet boarding business on West Breese Road, who framed the debate as a matter of property rights.
“I have grown up learning my right to swing my fist stops at your nose,” Caprilla said. “So under these same American principles, the farmer’s right to collect solar rays stops at your property line. This project is not touching a single blade of grass on anyone’s property who does not want it.”
It wasn’t until near the end that Wildermuth’s name got called and he walked to the microphone.
He said there was a disconnect between the talk of the dangers of solar panels, which are minor at best, and the real environmental damage that has been done by the city’s heavy industry.
“Some of us remember when they were pulling fish out of the Ottawa River that were deformed in many different ways,” he said.
He talked about what he learned from going door to door to discuss the project, and how he found that most people support it once they understand how the tax proceeds would help local schools and reduce taxes.
And then he finished.
“I appreciate your indulgence in listening to me,” he said.
Local Government Has ‘Great Concern’
After the hearing, Wildermuth grew pessimistic about Birch Solar’s chances of being approved. The project had inspired a large and passionate resistance, but even more importantly, the opposition included one of the most powerful people in state government: Matt Huffman.
Huffman is a lawyer who lives in Lima, and is president of the Ohio Senate. He sent three letters to the Power Siting Board urging it to reject Birch Solar. Asked about this advocacy, John Fortney, Huffman’s spokesman, said that “the voices of the people living within that project made it clear it was not wanted.”
The local opposition to this project and several others helped to inspire Senate Bill 52, which Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, signed in July 2021. The law gives county and township officials the power to designate parts of their jurisdictions as off-limits to large wind and solar developments.
At least 10 counties have now passed measures to limit or ban the projects.
Opponents of the law said there is a double standard because the state has empowered local governments to restrict renewable energy projects, but there is no equivalent local power to limit or ban oil and gas drilling.
While the new law is a major barrier for wind and solar applications, the projects that already were pending, like Birch Solar, are not covered.
If local officials don’t have the authority to stop a pending project, then opponents’ only hope is for the Power Siting Board to decide in those cases to place a greater emphasis on whether an applicant has local support.
The advocacy of a legislative leader has been a complicating factor in the debate, Wildermuth said. The legislature doesn’t dictate outcomes to the Ohio Power Siting Board, but it does have the power to set the board’s budget and to confirm the appointments of some of the agency heads that serve on the board.
Lightsource BP, which is partially owned by BP, worked for much of the last year to address the concerns raised by opponents. The company agreed to reduce the project’s footprint so it wasn’t as close to some roads and neighboring properties.
But some opposition remained, including from local governments. In Allen County, which includes Lima and most of the project area, county officials sent several letters to the Power Siting Board listing various misgivings with the project.
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Among the issues: possible damage to roads from construction equipment, the potential that construction will damage the network of drainage systems in farm fields, and concerns that the Lightsource BP did not have an adequate plan for decommissioning the project at the end of its life.
“I believe it’s accurate to say that we put forth great concern,” said Beth Seibert, an Allen County commissioner.
Wildermuth said the county has been disingenuous by saying that Lightsource BP hadn’t done enough to respond to feedback. For example, he disputes the idea that there is any problem with the decommissioning plan, which the company included in its initial application and then expanded with additional details in response to comments from opponents.
He got the sense that no matter what the developer did, the project was going to be rejected. And he was about to find out if he was right.
‘All Those in Favor, Say Aye’
The Power Siting Board set a vote for Oct 20, 2022 to rule on the Birch Solar application.
Wildermuth had considered driving to Columbus to see the vote, but by that day he felt sure enough of the outcome that he didn’t want to make the trip.
The board gathered in its chambers in a downtown office building. Birch Solar was the first case on the agenda.
“In this order, the Ohio Power Siting Board denies the application of Birch Solar 1 LLC for a certificate of environmental compatibility and need for the construction, operation and maintenance of the proposed solar power electric generation facility,” said Jeff Jones, an administrative law judge who sat alongside the six board members who were voting that day.
The board’s chair, Jenifer French, asked if there was any discussion.
“Hearing none, all those in favor, say aye,” she said. It was unanimous.
The whole thing took about 30 seconds, which is normal for this quasi-judicial board. But for people unused to how the board works, who had campaigned for or against the project for two years, it was an anticlimax.
The 28-page decision made clear that local government opposition was the main factor behind the rejection and that Lightsource BP had met all other standards for compliance with state guidelines.
It was the first time the board had denied any application for a solar project.
The board declined a request to interview its chair, Jenifer French, but did answer written questions.
“The board must balance the public benefits of solar generation facilities with the need to fully consider the impact on individuals who are most directly affected by a proposed project, primarily the communities living near the project,” said Matt Butler, the board’s spokesman.
Underscoring the significance of local views, the board approved two other solar projects at that same meeting that are located in areas with less opposition, a total of 600 megawatts. That’s roughly enough electricity to power 107,000 houses, according to the board.
For perspective, the state has gone from almost no utility-scale solar just a few years ago to a building boom that includes about 6,000 megawatts of projects that received board approval. The pace and the scale of development contributed to the opposition’s view that the growth was too fast and too much.
The panel has 16 other pending cases representing 3,284 megawatts of solar capacity that could be affected by this shift to prioritize local opinion. Of those, at least five, including Chipmunk Solar in Williamsport, have significant local opposition, including from local governments, based on a review of the case dockets.
Butler cautioned against drawing conclusions from the Birch Solar decision about how the board may rule in other cases.
Lightsource BP isn’t done yet. First, it has asked the Power Siting Board to reconsider the decision, but this is unlikely to change the outcome. Second, it could file an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court. This appeal would likely argue that the board wasn’t following its own rules by placing so much emphasis on local opposition.
“The board’s total deference here to baseless opposition by certain local government entities—which is not based on evidence in the record—abrogates its authority and responsibility under Ohio’s system of government,” the company said in its request for rehearing.
‘Buoyed’ by the Midterms
On a recent Thursday, following a light snow, Michael and Sharon Wildermuth had a lunch of homemade lentil and barley soup.
“It’s not totally over,” she said.
By that, she meant that the court appeal remains. Beyond that, she said, the need to build renewable energy is only going to intensify in the coming years, in Lima and everywhere else. So she expects that versions of this debate will happen again and again.
Michael and Sharon met at church when he was in his early 20s and she was in her late teens. They bonded over a shared love of singing and playing guitar. Now that both are retired, most of their days are like this, with meals made from scratch in the comfort of home.
While the defeat in the solar case still stung, Michael said his “spirits were buoyed” by the November election results in which candidates who talked about climate change and clean energy did well across the country.
But he was less excited about the results in Ohio, where Republicans won every major office, including the re-election of Gov. Mike DeWine, who had signed Senate Bill 52, and others who also have contributed to a hostile policy environment for renewable energy. He was used to this dynamic of watching progress in other places and knowing it would be a while until it reaches Ohio or Allen County.
“It is what it is,” he said.
Rather than be discouraged by the setbacks, he felt energized. He searched for the right analogy to explain this, and then said two names: Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. The men were leaders in the movement to ban slavery in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. His point wasn’t about similarity between their main issue and his, but about their perseverance.
“It took years and years and years of effort (and) lots and lots of defeats, but they were all people who wouldn’t give up,” he said. “They just kept doing the right thing, and, eventually, things changed.”