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Union County Residents Divided Over Proposed Solar Farm

John Case standing in his front yard.
Nick Evans
John Case standing in his front yard.

In northern Union County, a Spanish renewable energy company called Acciona is cobbling together thousands of acres of farmland to build a new solar array. The company says the development will bring jobs and local tax revenue, but many residents aren’t exactly laying out the welcome mat.  

Acciona held a public meeting for their soon-to-be neighbors in early October. As with many things this year, the format was unusual: Rather than rows of plastic chairs and trays of cookies on folding tables in the back, residents got a PowerPoint over Zoom.

Acciona and their American partner company Tenaska laid out their case for choosing Union County: easy connection to the grid, plenty of sun and local labor, and demand for clean energy. They also described their timeline of finalizing leases this fall and the state permitting process late next summer.

Construction would start in 2022, with panels up and running by 2023. Building the array will create about 300 jobs for a year, and then they’ll need to hire on about a dozen technicians to run the system.

Adam Stratton, who leads Acciona’s solar team, contends the project will be a net gain for the area.

“In the end, this is a tax revenue stream, which in our experience with solar projects brings limited demand on local services such as schools and police, therefore leaving much more money in the coffers,” Stratton says.

Still, many of the residents who attended the meeting seem dubious.

The campaign-style yard sign in front of John Case’s home reads "Say No To Solar Farms," with the “no” standing out big and red. He received a packet in the mail about plans for the solar farm, but after his in-laws and a number of friends didn’t, Case started a Facebook groupopposing the plan.

“To say, 'Hey, this is what’s going on and we want everybody around here to know,'” Case explains. “Not that we necessarily oppose green energy or solar farms, but the deceitful way and the very sneaky way in which it’s being brought in.”

In the "Citizens Against Union County Solar Farm" group, and in public comments filed with state regulators, it’s pretty easy to find the typical not-in-my-backyard complaints that accompany almost any development. Case worries about how the solar farm will look, what happens when the project winds down, and whether it could tank his home’s value.

But there are also complaints about the construction’s impact on neighbors. Case brings up field tile—the underground drainage systems to help manage groundwater. It's a necessity for growing commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

“We’re not going to know for maybe a year that when they put all those solar panels in, they cut the field tile that helps drain neighboring properties,” Case says. “You know that they’re not going to go tear up that solar field to fix that four-inch field tile.”

In an emailed statement, David Gladem, who runs photovoltaic operations for Acciona, insists that's not the case.

“We fully understand the concerns of all land owners as it relates to the proper drainage of water from the fields, and are committed to maintaining the fields as good, or better, than they were before the project,” Gladem says.

Case has taken to making sidetrips whenever he's near a solar farm in Ohio, snapping photos on his phone. And it's not all terrible. He points out one where a large earthen berm largely obscures the view of the solar farm from the roadway.

Tenah McMahan standing in front of the field Acciona has optioned for its solar project.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Tenah McMahan standing in front of the field Acciona has optioned for its solar project.

Tenah McMahan is one of the property owners who has agreed to lease land to Acciona. She’s signing over a chunk of farmland near Richwood.

“There’s around 40 acres here, and then on back that you can’t see from the road is 60 acres,” she describes. “So we have around 100 acres that is up for potential lease.”

McMahan explains the company has five years to make a more deliberate survey of the land and decide on where they want to build. She’ll be paid for whatever portion they wind up using for the solar installation.

McMahan is sensitive to concerns about the long-term health of the land. She explains Acciona was quick to ask about their field tile, and that her lease stipulates the company plant grasses to avoid losing topsoil, as well as maintain ditches along the field’s edge. And she says they’re making an effort to address aesthetic concerns, too.

“Where it borders the house up here, they’re supposed to put shrubbery so the person doesn’t look out and just see high tensile fence and solar panels," McMahan says. "There is, you know they’re looking at having some green factor besides the solar component to it, some vegetation.”

When the lease runs its course, Acciona is supposed to return the land to its current state, but McMahan says signing on wasn’t an easy decision. The lease would run for 30 years, so she and her husband consulted with their children before agreeing to the deal.

At the end of the day, McMahan says development has already come to Union County. Moving machinery the five miles necessary to work this field has gotten worse and worse as traffic increases.

She doesn’t see how neighbors can be so critical of solar panels as new homes take over farmland outside Marysville.

“What’s the difference?” she asks. “Now we have traffic, and pollution from cars, and more trash and more people. You know it’s just, what’s the difference between them doing that right there in their giant field and us doing this? It’s a personal choice.”

Acciona already has a power purchasing agreement signed with a company Stratton describes as “operating in Ohio,” but at this point they aren’t revealing which company that is.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.