Solar panels
Credit: KOMUnews / Creative Commons

Three workshops next month will help Ohio regulators draft statewide siting rules for solar and other energy facilities, but a new state law that will take effect days later could still let local governments block solar and wind projects.

The Ohio Power Siting Board has scheduled workshops on Oct. 4 and 8 in advance of draft rules for solar and other facilities. Advocates for industry and environmental groups say the sessions could be helpful even though Senate Bill 52 will soon let counties block projects that might otherwise meet any new standards.

“We’re seeing significant economic expansion across the state in the solar industry. And we want to make sure that that can continue to grow,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to support updating rules in a way that continues fact-based determinations at the siting board.”

Topics under consideration for solar projects include setbacks, landscape and lighting design, fencing, and operational noise, according to the board’s notice.  The Power Siting Board “has received public comments on various proceedings, and these topics are often brought up,” said spokesperson Matt Schilling at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. “Currently there are no rules that speak specifically to solar facilities.”

Other subjects on the workshops’ agenda include decommissioning plans for wind and solar facilities, as well as a variety of topics dealing with public involvement, local government contacts, complaint resolution and more.

“We’ve said for a long time that this was the place where we should have had a discussion about how public input is provided and included, versus Senate Bill 52,” said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council. 

That law takes effect on Oct. 11. Among other things, it lets counties ban solar and wind facilities from all or part of their territory, gives counties and townships a seat and vote in the board’s solar or wind project cases, and holds renewable projects to a higher standard than fossil fuel infrastructure.

Instead of SB 52 “kind of putting a hatchet to the process” for projects not already in the regulatory pipeline, concerns about local input “could have actually been discussed and streamlined through these workshops,” Leppla said.

Attention to equipment’s proximity to neighbors, arrangements for good neighbor agreements, engagement with a community, and dealing with concerns about drainage tiles and other matters all are very important, said Jason Rafeld, executive director of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Ohio. Good developers pay close attention to those and other details anyway, so they generally wouldn’t object to having those practices spelled out in rules. On the other hand, he said, “bad development is bad for the whole industry.”

“There are some things that we probably have nuanced differences on. But we would largely support a list of best practices that got put in the rules,” Rafeld said. “Ultimately, I think it would be a disincentive to bad development.”

“We want people to be happy,” Rafeld added. “We want people to have as good an experience as they can with solar being built near their community.”

The Ohio Power Siting Board must review rules every five years in any case, said Rafeld, who is also a former chief of staff for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. That process began in early 2020, but then got largely derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At some point, the board also will need to implement parts of SB 52 that apply to it, he noted.

Comments already on the record in the board’s rule review file include remarks from people and groups both for and against renewable energy. Also on file are materials from SB 52 sponsor Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, and House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who worked for years to weaken Ohio’s renewable energy standards and to make it harder to develop new wind projects.

Anyone who wants to testify at the Oct. 4 in-person workshop at 10 a.m. should register at the Public Utilities Commission building lobby that morning. Registration for the Oct. 4 and Oct. 8 online workshops must be completed by noon on Oct. 1 and Oct. 7, respectively.

 “We think that it’s really important that folks that are supportive of clean energy and see the need to transition away from fossil fuels in Ohio come out and support rules that make sense for clean energy,” Leppla said.

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.