WILLIAMSPORT, Ohio—Chris Weaver stood up from his chair in the audience and looked across the village hall at the mayor.
“I’m here to ask you to resign,” said Weaver, a journeyman carpenter, who spoke with a gruff authority.
Mayor John Elliott, dressed in a camouflage baseball cap and blue tank top, stood to respond.
“That’s not gonna happen,” Elliott said.
Elliott earned this rebuke by writing a letter to state officials urging them to support the Chipmunk solar project, which would be located north of the village. He did so last winter when opposition to solar was just starting to emerge and it wasn’t yet clear that every local official, except for Elliott, was either going to oppose the project or remain silent.
“Your letter to support the solar farm, when a majority of the citizens of Williamsport oppose it, makes you a disgrace to your position,” Weaver said. “Time to hang it up, buddy.”
Rather than argue, Elliott moved on to the next person who wanted to speak. Weaver sat down. The tension eased.
This scene from the village council meeting in June helps to explain why opponents of three solar projects proposed in Pickaway County, Ohio, can say they have the support of nearly every local elected official. It shows how a committed group of local residents have dominated the debate by packing county, village and township meetings, and making their displeasure known if officials don’t fall into line.
The prevailing emotion is fear, whether it’s fear of the solar projects—or fear of upsetting the people who oppose the projects.
And the local fight has broad implications. The world needs to increase its reliance on renewable energy, an essential part of avoiding the most destructive effects of climate change. Local opposition shows some of the disconnect between global needs and the concerns of some of the people who don’t want to live next door to wind and solar projects.
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Meanwhile, the supporters of solar feel like they have been pushed to the margins, with officials unwilling to consider the projects’ benefits, like a sizable boost in tax income for local governments and millions of dollars in lease payments for farmers. There also are environmental benefits, like a reduction in fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use on land that will no longer be growing row crops.
“We’re not the devil,” said Mark Schein, a retired farmer who leased his family’s property for the Chipmunk project, speaking at the same June council meeting. He was one of two solar supporters in the audience, along with his friend and neighbor, Doug Steck, who also has leased his family’s land. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Listen to Dan Gearino and collaborator Tracy Wholf explore divisions over solar in rural Ohio, on ABC News’ Start Here podcast.
The council listened and then moved on to other business.
This dynamic is playing out in rural communities across the country as residents respond to a wave of renewable energy development, with ever-larger projects. Opponents say that solar power is a threat to the economy and to human health—assertions that often go unchallenged or barely challenged at the local level.
Showing up in Force to Say ‘No’ to Solar
On a Tuesday afternoon in August, about 20 people put on matching white T-shirts with the message, “NO INDUSTRIAL SOLAR PLANTS ON FARMLAND,” and packed into their county government’s offices in Circleville, a short drive from Williamsport.
They were there because a reporter was coming to interview the county commissioners and they wanted to observe.
I was that reporter.
As I arrived, they were spilling onto the porch of the renovated house that serves as the commissioners’ offices. I weaved between them and said hellos, including to Weaver, and proceeded into a narrow waiting area outside the boardroom.
The commissioners do not have the authority to accept or reject the three pending solar projects (Chipmunk, Circleville and Scioto Farms), but their opinion is a major factor for the state office that does have the authority, the Ohio Power Siting Board. The board is likely to issue decisions in the cases later this year or in the first half of next year.
I asked the people next to me if they had any suggestions of what I should ask the commissioners.
“No solar,” said one woman, which wasn’t exactly a question.
A county staff member opened the heavy door to the board room and the visitors filed in, taking nearly every seat. The three commissioners took their places behind a raised wooden desk at the front of the room and showed no signs of being surprised or flustered by the large crowd.
They had agreed to speak with me, but only if I interviewed them together. Since a majority of the board was present, this was a public meeting under Ohio law, which is why the audience was welcome.
Weaver sat in the front row, a few feet from me, smiling and chatting with the people around him.
I remained standing and leaned against the commissioners’ desk, like a lawyer speaking to a panel of judges.
“So if I’m a solar developer, is the message, ‘Just stay away from Pickaway County?’” I asked.
“I would say that’s probably the message that’s been sent, yeah,” said Jay Wippel, the board’s chairman and its longest-serving member, first elected in 2006. He’s also the only one of the three up for re-election in November.
The commissioners are managing a county with a population of about 60,000 that is increasingly suburban, with much of the growth coming from people and businesses that want to be near Columbus, which is about a 40-minute drive from Circleville.
Wippel is a farmer who lives a few miles north of the proposed Chipmunk project, the largest of the solar proposals.
He said he’s been approached at least five times about leasing some of his farmland to solar developers, and rejected the opportunity because he wanted to preserve the rural character of the area.
I asked what it’s been like to face the pressure from solar opponents.
“That’s part of the job; we represent the people,” Wippel said. “They’re all good folks concerned about the areas where they live.”
Weaver and the rest of the audience observed, with occasional nods and whispers.
‘Nothing but the Birds’
Weaver views the Chipmunk project as a threat to the quiet retirement he imagined in his near future. He has become an enforcer of sorts for the anti-solar side, showing up to meetings with a readiness to speak his mind, as he did with Williamsport’s mayor.
Last spring, I interviewed him and his wife Bobbi at their kitchen table. Their one-story house on Justus Road has beige siding and white trim, and an in-ground pool out back. They built the house in the early 1990s and raised four children there. They are used to the view of farm fields out to the horizon.
The Chipmunk project would cover about 2,700 football fields, including an area across the street and northeast of the Weavers’ house, about 100 yards away from their property. What worries them most is that one of the project’s electrical substations will be within view.
“I’m a little angry about all this,” Chris said.
They dread the possibility that the substation, a fenced-in area filled with electrical equipment, will be the source of constant humming. To explain this worry, Chris held out his phone and played audio from his visit to a solar project in southern Ohio, recorded near a substation. The noise was like the whir of a distant hair dryer.
We took a walk in their front yard. Chris mentioned that it was his and Bobbi’s wedding anniversary. I asked him how many years and he laughed.
“We dated in high school, so do the math,” he said.
Near the edge of the front yard, we stopped and Bobbi asked me to take note of the noise, or lack thereof.
“You hear nothing but the birds,” she said.
Chris said he has no problem with his neighbors that signed leases, including Mark Schein, who lives two miles away. He reserves most of his criticism for the developer, EDF Renewables, a company that he thinks is overselling the benefits and downplaying the risks of solar. (EDF disagrees, and says anyone who wants more information should review the project application.)
One of the few local people that Weaver singles out for criticism is Elliott, the Williamsport mayor. As Weaver sees it, Elliott was easily swayed by solar developers and now is afraid to say he was duped.
Elliott, a semi-retired laborer, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Constituents’ Concerns: Health, Safety and Welfare
The commissioners, at least in our conversation, stuck to the position that they want to preserve the rural look and feel of the county and think that the large scale of the solar developments would detract from that. And they said they want to be sympathetic to the concerns being raised by constituents.
They had already passed a resolution opposing the Chipmunk project. They said the project “will not promote the general health, safety and welfare of the residents of Pickaway County.”
The resolution doesn’t list any specific health and safety concerns. However, the state’s case docket includes letters from other officials that help to fill in this picture.
Gary Cameron, the county’s director of emergency management, wrote a letter summarizing the health concerns he had heard from residents. It reads like a laundry list of the issues presented on anti-solar message boards, including a discussion of the potential that cadmium, which is present in some solar panels, could be a hazard to human health.
Cameron wrote that the solar projects could lead to “the creation of a hazardous ‘super fund’ site resulting in a pattern of illness/death.”
Asked about the letter, Cameron said in an email that there is uncertainty about the extent to which solar panels contain hazardous materials, and that his office’s job is to be aware of risks. His office “is concerned that decommissioned solar panels, especially broken solar panels, will accumulate on these sites and leach out hazardous waste,” he said.
He said it is reasonable for emergency managers and the public to have concerns, considering that large-scale solar projects do not have a long track record in the United States.
“We know that community perceptions of health or safety risks should not be ignored,” he said.
The talk of high risks goes beyond the evidence from leading energy researchers or government data. For example, North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center issued a report in 2017 on health and safety issues related to solar, finding that “the quick emergence of utility-scale solar has cultivated fertile grounds for myths and half-truths about the health impacts of this technology, which can lead to unnecessary fear and conflict.”
The report goes through the concerns and assesses their validity. Among them is the fear that cadmium in some solar panels could be harmful. The report goes into detail about why “the tiny amount of cadmium in these panels does not pose a health or safety risk,” citing research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
From Solar Support to Solar Pushback
The commissioners haven’t always opposed solar. I asked them what’s changed.
Some history: Two years ago, they negotiated a deal with the developer of the 200-megawatt Atlanta Farms solar project, the first large solar array to be proposed completely within the county’s borders. The agreement front-loaded the taxes from the developer, giving local schools and governments an initial payment of $6 million and annual payments of $1.7 million. It was a lot of money for a rural county and the commissioners praised it at the time.
But now, Wippel opposes solar, arguing that the Atlanta Farms project was a “whole different set of circumstances.”
The state was about to give approval to Atlanta Farms, so the local role was limited to figuring out tax issues, he said. The project will soon begin construction.
In the time since the agreement with Atlanta Farms, two big things have changed, he said.
First, the solar industry has been obtaining leases for ever-larger projects, which has prompted pushback from residents. For example, the Chipmunk project is double the size of Atlanta Farms.
Second, a state law enacted in 2021 gives local governments much greater authority to block wind and solar projects, which they didn’t have before.
For the projects that were already in the works, including the three in Pickaway County, local governments do not have veto power. But the Power Siting Board has been putting more weight on local public opinion in those cases, and the new law gives local officials two votes on the board. The county board and local townships can each appoint one member to sit on the board to help decide cases in their jurisdictions. The two votes, out of nine on the board, are far short of a majority, but they do give local officials a greater voice than before.
Commissioner Harold “Champ” Henson, a farmer, said he can see that there are financial benefits to solar development, but one of the key factors for him is that the local governments and school districts that would most benefit from the tax proceeds from solar are not pressing officials to support the projects.
Most notable in this group is Westfall Local School District, which would get about half of the taxes from the Chipmunk project. Neither the school board nor the administration have taken positions on the issue as they face pressure from the same people who are lobbying the county commissioners. (The school superintendent has not responded to requests for interviews or comment.)
His larger point is that the opponents of the project have organized and persuaded many of their neighbors, while the supporters of the project haven’t. As an elected official, he thinks he needs to listen to what his constituents are telling him.
After a half hour, my time was up and I thanked the commissioners for agreeing to meet.
The audience applauded, a sign that the officials had remained sufficiently on-message.