Additional projects that fall below the siting board’s 50-megawatt permit threshold are being installed as well. This rapid growth brings the potential for problems, but lessons learned from pipeline and wind energy projects can help head off those concerns, said Ken Niese, a farmer and drainage contractor turned energy project consultant. Landowners, neighbors and local officials all have a role to play, he explained. “We’re all learning new tricks.”
The PUCO has also been devoting more staff resources to solar projects as the number of projects grows. Matt Butler, a program administrator with PUCO, explained that investigative staff members have been added to help the Ohio Power Siting Board review applications as they’re submitted. And, a new compliance department has been formed. The PUCO has always monitored projects during construction and operation but the new department will focus on nothing other than compliance, Butler said. “This is the first time we’ve had dedicated staff.”
Get involved in solar projects early, stay involved
Butler encourages local officials and landowners to get involved with the permitting process from the beginning. “Oftentimes the local landowners are going to know more about a particular farm than the developer.” The siting board’s review process offers multiple opportunities for involvement, starting with public information meetings. Anyone can offer input by sending in comments on a project or speaking at a public hearing, he pointed out.
During construction and after a project goes into operation, community members can still offer input. A complaint resolution process is included as part of every project approved by the OPSB, Butler explained. The first step in resolving a complaint is to contact the company. Companies must file a report on complaint management to the OPSB every quarter, he said. Then, if complaints are not resolved by the company, they can be taken directly to the OPSB compliance staff.
Niese and his consulting business partner, Paul Pullins, have been working with companies, landowners and local officials to prevent and resolve issues with solar developments. Their consulting company, Agricultural Environmental Drainage Services, has worked on pipeline, wind and solar developments. In addition to consulting work, Niese farms with his family and helps operate a drainage business based in Shelby, Ohio. Pullins works with his own family running a farming operation and drainage business near Quincy.
Some solar developers initially lacked understanding of the state’s weather and soils, which contributed to problems with some projects, said Niese. For instance, one project currently has water pooling on the site. “They’ve got water boiling to the surface,” he said. The site needs additional drainage work, but contractors are reluctant to take on the job because of the liability and complicated nature of working around solar panels.
That example shows how important it is to protect existing drainage systems during installation or make improvements before installation. Paying for drainage from the beginning reduces costs in the long run, Pullins pointed out. “The more problems they can avoid now, the lower the bill will be in the end.” Unfortunately, some solar projects have been sold and information about drainage needs wasn’t passed on to the new owners, he added.
Lack of understanding on the part of landowners may also lead to problems, said Niese. In particular, landowners who are a generation or two removed from farming may not know what to ask for in solar leases to protect the land.
Often a project will raise concerns from people who are not directly involved with the project because their farmland drains through the site, added Niese. Residential properties adjacent to solar developments also can be affected.
Local government officials are facing a steep learning curve related to solar projects as well. Ohio Senate Bill 52, which was enacted in 2021, gives county and township officials greater control over the development of solar projects, but they may have little experience, Niese said.
Niese added he’s especially concerned about how local officials will handle projects that aren’t required to get OPSB approval because they’re smaller than the siting board’s 50-megawatt permit threshold. “Those projects I’m really worried about.”
Heading off solar headaches
As they’ve worked on solar development issues, Ken Niese and Paul Pullins, both with Agricultural Environmental Drainage Services, have seen what it takes to forge agreements that are fair to landowners as well as solar companies. The key is balancing the needs of everyone involved, said Pullins. “There’s a fine line that still protects both sides.”
For anyone involved with project negotiations, they offer this advice:
Lack of communication between landowners, neighbors, community leaders and company officials can lead to hard feelings and misinformation. Social media rants can add to misunderstandings, Pullins said. Instead, open discussions with everyone affected can help resolve concerns at the beginning of the process. The permitting process for projects larger than 50 megawatts also provides multiple opportunities for people to offer input.
Pullins suggests writing out a list of concerns, setting the list aside, and then writing out a second list a few days later. After a few more days, write out your concerns yet again. Thinking over the situation over a period of time will help you compile a more complete list of concerns. And all of those concerns need to be addressed in whatever agreement you make.
Consult independent experts
Landowners and local officials may be faced with making decisions about solar projects without the experience to make informed decisions. Working with a consultant with specialized expertise can help, explained Niese. For instance, a drainage consultant can map out existing tile systems and work with solar company engineers on project designs. “The main goal is to make sure the area that’s already tiled stays tiled with the existing system or gets a new system that’s equivalent to what they already had.”
Get it in writing
Don’t rely on verbal agreements, Pullins warned. “Nothing is any good unless it’s in writing.” Having documentation can be particularly important if a solar project is sold.
Hire an experienced attorney
Not every attorney has the experience to deal with energy lease contracts, Niese stressed. Hiring an experienced attorney will be expensive, Pullins added, but the cost is worth it. “You’ll think you’re paying an arm and a leg, but it’ll save that arm and leg from being amputated down the road.”
That growing interest in solar energy in the Buckeye State has led to difficult discussions, tough decisions and a divide in opinion across the countryside. On this Our Ohio Weekly, we talk all things solar with two Ohio Farm Bureau experts.