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Health, Science & Environment

Ohio’s status as a leader in renewable energy development may not last

Panels designed with a special coating to prevent glare at the Hillcrest Solar Farm in Brown County, Ohio
Chris Welter
Panels designed with a special coating to prevent glare at the Hillcrest Solar Farm in Brown County, Ohio

Ohio is fourth in the nation for anticipated renewable energy development in 2023. Enough energy infrastructure will be installed to power close to 1.5 million homes (1.92 Gigawatts), according to recent government data from the Energy Information Administration. In an interview with WYSO, one expert said such a high level of renewable energy development in the state might not last moving forward due to a variety of factors.

Most of the renewable energy development in 2023 are utility scale solar projects on farmland in Western Ohio, as is consistent with broader renewable energy installation trends across the country (i.e. utility scale solar leading the pack ahead of wind energy).

Corporate demand has driven utility scale solar development in Ohio. Here's how it works: Fortune 500 companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook partner with solar developers to sign a power purchasing agreement. In the agreement, companies agree to purchase all the power produced by a utility scale solar farm for fifteen to twenty years at a fixed price. The PPAs provide a steady flow of income for the solar companies and it offsets the corporations’ fossil fuel usage at their big facilities like data centers and factories.

But applications for new Utility scale solar projects have slowed in Ohio, partially due to a relatively new law called Senate Bill 52. It restricts where projects can be located and gives local politicians the option to kill large-scale solar developments if they don’t believe it's a good fit for their community. The bill came out of a Republican led state house — some representing rural communities where renewable projects had become contentious and rife with misinformation. From a private property perspective, the Ohio Farm Bureau said Senate Bill 52 was “a pretty new and unprecedented government restriction on land use.”

Gilbert Michaud, a professor at Loyola University Chicago who has studied utility scale solar development in Ohio for years, said the recently constructed and planned to be built this year utility scale solar projects that factored into the EIA data that put Ohio fourth in the nation for anticipated renewable energy development in 2023 were approved by regulators before SB 52 passed in 2021. He said that could mean the trend we have seen so far this year in Ohio might not last.

“I do think it could be a bit of an anomaly,” Michaud said. “We're probably going to see it flatten out a little bit in the future as projects that are in the queue now have to go through this new system of approval post S.B. 52.”

He said organized opposition to utility scale solar projects across the state could also slow development and encourage companies to look elsewhere.

“We've already seen some precedents set in terms of opposition groups that have successfully gotten projects delayed or canceled,” Michaud said. “We're going to see developers focus their efforts on places that are more receptive to renewables.”

Michaud also said electricity transmission infrastructure will need to be updated in Ohio to support more renewable energy development. Another complicating factor for solar growth in the state: the regional grid operator, PJM, put some solar project proposals on hold for two years in April 2022 because of "unprecedented" demand.

Health, Science & Environment Ohio NewsRenewable Energy
Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.