Solar energy is poised to challenge nuclear power as the third-largest source of electricity generation in Ohio, according to a new analysis.
The Buckeye state is in the midst of a solar boom, with dozens of large projects in various stages of development, despite political headwinds. The latest approvals this month by the Ohio Power Siting Board pushed the state’s approved solar project pipeline to about 2.1 gigawatts, with another 4.3 gigawatts’ worth of projects pending before regulators.
If all of those projects are completed, the state’s annual potential solar output would total about 14 million megawatt-hours — closing in on the roughly 17 million MWh capacity from the state’s two nuclear power plants.
That’s according to a new analysis by Ohio University policy analyst Gilbert Michaud and University of Wyoming economist Christelle Khalaf. The report, which was commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, takes into account differences in the two sources’ capacity factors — how output varies due to weather, repairs, maintenance and other conditions.
The report comes as state lawmakers consider the latest set of bills to further hinder solar and wind development in the state, and as NRDC and others try to push back on a false narrative that nuclear power offers the only significant potential for large-scale carbon-free electricity in the state.
“Solar can really change the percentages and really change the game of zero-carbon electricity in the state,” co-author Michaud said.
The Ohio Power Siting Board approved two major solar projects at its most recent meeting, including Big Plain’s Madison Solar Project, a 196-megawatt facility in Fairfield and Oak Run townships that is among the largest approved in the state so far.
Ohio’s solar queue has almost tripled since last year. Driving the expansion of proposed solar projects has been a demand for clean energy by multiple large corporations, as well as ambitious clean energy targets by other states in the PJM grid region, according to Jason Rafeld, executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition.
“Unlike states east of us, Ohio has abundant open, flat and dry land that is ideal for solar farms,” Rafeld said during recent legislative testimony. And costs for utility-scale solar have come down 90% since 2009, he noted, making it competitive with any fuel source.
Solar projects that are already approved or in the pipeline at the siting board could eliminate more than 60 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that drive human-caused climate change, according to the new report.
“Currently, Ohio emits 74.1 million tons of annual greenhouse gases from our electric generating power plants, ranking Ohio as the 5th highest polluting state in the U.S.,” said Dan Sawmiller, NRDC’s director of energy policy in Ohio, in legislative testimony on March 23. Approval of all the projects currently in the pipeline could mitigate roughly one-fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s power plants, he noted. “This is the equivalent of taking 620,000 cars off the road.”
A separate analysis by Michaud, Khalaf and others last year forecast significant boosts in jobs and other economic benefits from growth in Ohio’s solar industry. At least 54,000 construction-related jobs could be supported from the addition of 7.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar, that analysis found.
“Some [benefits] are easier to quantify, such as innovation in the renewable energy sector creating new jobs and value added,” Khalaf said. “Others are more latent but nonetheless sizeable. Examples include economic benefits from improving a variety of health outcomes, as well as decreasing the prevalence of extreme weather.”
Advocates hope the projected environmental and economic benefits from solar projects will help persuade lawmakers to reject new legislation that threatens to thwart the industry’s momentum in the state. Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 118 could allow local voters to challenge solar and wind projects that have already been approved by state regulators. The bills also would increase the property line setbacks for those projects. Sawmiller submitted the new analysis to lawmakers last week as part of his testimony against HB 118.
The analysis also undermines claims made in 2019 and 2020 to support subsidies for the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power plants, owned by Energy Harbor (formerly FirstEnergy Solutions). The scandal over an alleged $60 million conspiracy led lawmakers last week to pass a bill repealing the nuclear subsidies in House Bill 6. However, Gov. DeWine had previously favored support for the two nuclear plants.
“Without this bill, it would have meant that we would have had virtually no — very, very little — non-carbon generating energy,” DeWine said on July 22.
“Ohio needs zero-carbon energy to hit our targeted goals for carbon reduction,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted echoed at the same press conference. “And in the near term … in order for Ohio to hit any reasonable carbon reduction goals we have to have nuclear energy.”
Natural gas generated more of Ohio’s in-state electricity than coal for the first time in 2019, with a 43% share compared to 39% for coal. Nuclear made up 14.2% of the state’s generation mix. Wind’s share was 1.6%, and solar was just 0.6%, according to Energy Information Administration data.
Except for grandfathered projects, Ohio’s wind energy development has been largely stagnant since property line setbacks were tripled in 2014. If SB 52 or HB 118 becomes law, a similar fate could befall the state’s solar energy industry.
For now, however, solar energy developers are interested in investing in Ohio. “And in a few years — boom! — they’re 11% of the state’s generating portfolio,” Sawmiller said. “It’s the first large-scale investment in clean energy that’s arrived in Ohio.”