The Ohio State Capitol Building in Columbus.
The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Credit: Steven Miller / Creative Commons

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False and unsubstantiated claims about renewable energy have flourished for years, but critics say different forms of misinformation played a big role in Ohio lawmakers’ latest move to stifle the growth of wind and solar energy.

“Misinformation is the means to the end,” said Trish Demeter, chief of staff for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund. “Misinformation, bad information, misconstrued information, partial information: All of those are tactics that are supporting the goal, which is to block and kill renewable energy from being built in Ohio.”

Senate Bill 52 would let counties keep out new solar and wind farms from all or part of their territories, holding those projects to a higher standard than fossil fuel infrastructure. 

In the case of natural gas, for example, Ohio courts have struck down local zoning laws and other restrictions. And on July 1, Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 201 into law, forbidding local governments from banning natural gas.

In contrast, SB 52 would let counties prevent or limit any particular solar or wind project within their borders. Passed in the wee hours of June 29 with some changes from earlier versions, SB 52 still gives local governments multiple chances to nix renewable energy projects or break them up. Counties and local townships also would get two votes on Ohio Power Siting Board decisions for those projects.

At a minimum, SB 52 extends project timelines and adds uncertainty that critics say will discourage developers from choosing Ohio for renewable energy projects, causing the state to lose out on thousands of jobs.

Beyond that, it would let local governments restrict property owners’ rights to enter into lease agreements. And its restrictions apply only to renewable energy — not fossil fuel projects.

Lawmakers and SB 52 supporters used misinformation in multiple ways to move the bill forward, according to critics. In their view, even if the same outcome would have resulted anyway, playing fast and loose with facts makes it harder to hold politicians accountable for actions that discourage or disadvantage renewables.

“We are reviewing the bill and do not have an estimated timeline for executive action,” DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney said on Tuesday afternoon.

Shifting themes

“It’s a real challenge in Ohio with disinformation,” said Andrew Gohn, director of eastern state affairs for American Clean Power. For years, the industry association has seen a lot of misinformation about wind turbines and alleged health impacts.

“There was never any health evidence to support those claims,” Gohn said.

For SB 52 in Ohio, Gohn noted that proponents’ testimony included false statements aimed at splintering support for renewable projects. “It definitely strikes me as a pernicious kind of misinformation,” Gohn said.

As one example, Gohn noted baseless claims by some bill supporters that solar arrays could contaminate soil with chemicals such as lead or cadmium. But crystalline cadmium telluride, used in some solar panels, is not the same as free cadmium. Studies on simulated landfill conditions or hypotheticals about new solar panels in development don’t address real-world conditions when panels are in use. And manufacturing processes encapsulate active layers of photovoltaic cells in any event.

Solar panels “are 100% fully sealed. There’s nothing in there that can leak,” said Jason Rafeld, executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Ohio. In a similar vein, he said, none of the supporting structures for solar farms are deep enough to affect groundwater. 

“These kinds of myths? They’re not myths,” Rafeld said. “They’re blatant lies, or they’re at least misinformation that gets out there.” Such statements make it harder for developers to address reasonable questions people may have about efforts to grow Ohio’s solar energy industry, he said.

Other misinformation downplays the ability of solar and wind farms to produce substantial amounts of electricity.

Two days before SB 52’s introduction in February, Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp, both Republicans from Lima, spoke with an anti-renewable group. “The problem is that solar doesn’t really produce that much electricity,” Huffman claimed, referring to the fact that solar is currently a small share of the generation portfolio. “My goal is to make sure the [Birch Solar] project doesn’t go forward,” he said.

Other statements confuse the efficiency and ability of solar and wind farms to produce electricity with their capacity factor for purposes of PJM auctions, Gohn noted. Both types of statements unfairly downplay renewable energy’s ability to reduce emissions that drive human-caused climate change, in his view.

“They seem designed to break that coalition of individuals who care about those issues,” he said. “If you say wind and solar do not reduce carbon emissions, then that’s essentially trying to undermine the core constituency that supports wind and solar.”

In fact, the International Energy Agency reported that renewables had record growth in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 90% rise in global wind capacity and a 23% jump in photovoltaic installations. As of June 2021, more than 2.9 million solar systems installed in the United States offset 116 metric tons of carbon emissions — the equivalent of shutting down 20 coal-fired power plants, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Local control?

Hearings on SB 52 and an earlier companion bill, HB 118, also include inaccurate characterizations of existing law. SB 52 co-sponsor Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, wrongly claimed that a lack of local regulation for wind and solar farms differed from the treatment for “most other energy sources.”

Local governments have almost no say on siting natural gas operations or infrastructure, and coal and natural gas power plants are regulated by the Ohio Power Siting Board in the same way that wind and solar farms have been. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses nuclear plants.

Reineke also claimed that residents’ ability to voice concerns or otherwise take part in Ohio Power Siting Board cases involving wind and solar farms was “meaningless.”

For years, Ohioans have testified before the board in both opposition and support of renewable energy projects. Local residents also have intervened as parties. In some cases they have had counsel with ties to the coal industry.

If local control were really a concern, it should apply to all types of energy and other projects, Demeter said. She contrasted SB 52 with HB 201, which prevents local governments from banning natural gas connections in buildings. SB 52’s two primary sponsors signed on as co-sponsors in the Senate.

In Demeter’s view, the vote on SB 52 was “ideologically driven,” but not in terms of a conservative approach to limiting government interference and protecting property rights. 

“The ideology is really simple: ‘We don’t want wind or solar here in Ohio,’” Demeter said.

Less accountability?

False information about wind and solar farms goes back more than a dozen years, said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. After Ohio first enacted its renewable energy standards, anonymous websites spread myths, unsubstantiated claims and fears about hypothetical dangers. And some outspoken critics of renewables have had ties to fossil fuel interests, utilities or nuclear interests, he noted.

Similar work by Scott Peterson, executive director at the Checks and Balances Project, has likewise linked some wind energy opponents and their claims to fossil fuel interests and pro-nuclear advocates.

Yet proliferation of misinformation about renewables “definitely has increased” in the last few years, Anderson said. Social media, in particular, has become “a platform to organize and foment opposition,” he noted. “And it seems like HB 6 was actually an organizing tool around that.”

House Bill 6 is the nuclear and coal bailout law at the heart of an ongoing $60 million conspiracy case involving former House Speaker Larry Householder. Misinformation and a lack of transparency characterized the campaign to pass the law and prevent a referendum on it.

HB 6 also gutted Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, which lawmakers such as Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, had tried to do for nearly a decade. 

“Perhaps there was a feeling of empowerment after HB 6 passed, that there is no accountability,” Demeter said. Surveys show most Ohioans favor renewable energy, she noted.

Tripled property line setbacks adopted in a 2014 budget bill still limit wind farms. But Ohio’s solar industry has grown despite HB 6. The combined capacity of solar energy that is already permitted or in Ohio’s regulatory pipeline comes close to that of the nuclear plants for which FirstEnergy and FirstEnergy Solutions had sought a bailout under HB 6.

Lost opportunities

Critics say SB 52 will discourage future investments in Ohio’s renewable energy industry, costing the state thousands of jobs as the clean energy industry expands nationwide in response to ongoing climate change.

“It is leaving a lot of opportunity on the table that Ohio will miss out on,” Demeter said. “This bill will have a generational impact. They’re keeping Ohio out of the global market that is renewable energy.”

Regardless of Ohio’s action, growth in renewable energy “is going to continue,” Demeter added. But with SB 52, “Ohio is not going to see the benefits.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.