COLUMBUS, Ohio—Despite what you might think in the winter or even early spring, Ohio gets enough sunshine year-round to fuel solar energy facilities—massive ones.
The smallest solar energy project being planned in the state is 610 acres, and the largest is more than five times bigger, a facility slated to stretch across nearly 3,300 acres —over 5 square miles—in Hardin County.
“We’re not talking about a few panels here and there,” said Peggy Hall, agricultural and resource law field specialist for The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
In total, the 12 solar energy facilities being built or in the planning stages will cover about 16,000 acres—primarily in southern Ohio (Brown, Clermont, Highland, Madison, Pickaway, Vinton, and Preble counties) and in northwest Ohio’s Hardin County. They will span about 25 square miles of what’s now mostly farmland. That’s about the size of the city of Canton, Ohio.
Construction has already begun on three of the state’s 12 projects, two in Hardin County and one in Brown County.
The rise in development of solar facilities in Ohio will take up significant chunks of farmland for two to four decades, the typical duration of lease agreements with the solar energy companies seeking Ohio land.
Through postcards and letters in the mail, public meetings, and knocking on doors, solar energy companies are seeking out interested landowners in some parts of the state.
Landowners considering leasing their land to a solar energy company would benefit from carefully thinking through and getting the help of a lawyer to review the terms of the contract, Hall said.
She and Eric Romich, statewide energy specialist for CFAES, wrote a free guide that advises landowners considering lease agreements with solar energy companies.
“These projects are taking up large tracts of ground, thousands of acres, for 25 to 40 years. If you sign the wrong agreement, it could be detrimental to your farm, your family, your business,” Romich said.
Before agreeing to lease land to a solar energy company, landowners should consider not only their future plans for the land but also the potential impact on and opposition from neighbors, Romich said.
Each project consists of an extended series of mostly rectangular panels, either on the ground or slightly above the ground. While some panels are stationary, others shift back and forth following the direction of the sun.
“Some say, ‘I’d rather look at solar panels than a Walmart.’ And some say, ‘I’d rather look at farm fields than solar panels,’” said Hall, who has attended several public hearings on proposed solar facilities in Ohio.
“One woman was in tears. She bought her acre of paradise, and now she may be surrounded by solar panels.”
No large-scale solar facilities can be built unless they are approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, comprised primarily of top officials from various state agencies.
Before 2018, most solar projects in Ohio were small, for homes, farms, and businesses. But growth has been spurred by the drop in the cost of solar panels since 2010 and the availability of government tax incentives that encourage the investment.
Owners of land actively being farmed receive a break on annual real estate taxes, but that discount will go away if the land is converted into a site for solar panels.
“Our role is to help people examine the whole picture and be aware of all the impacts and implications of making that commitment,” Hall said.
The profit potential could outweigh any downsides, particularly at a time when commodity prices are low. While solar lease payments vary widely, landowners in Ohio typically are offered from $800 to $1,200 per acre, per year.
“It’s important to keep the big picture in mind,” Hall said. “Does this fit for you, your family, your land, and your long-term goals?”