XENIA — Residents raised concerns about impact, scale, and transparency at the latest public information meeting for a controversial solar project in Greene County. Kingwood Solar, owned by Texas-based Vesper Energy, is opposed by residents who say their voices have not been heard, and their questions have gone unanswered.
Kingwood Solar is a 175-megawatt facility, and is expected to generate approximately 360,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year. The proposed solar project would be located on approximately 1,500 acres between Yellow Springs and Cedarville. First Energy will operate the facility and provide supporting infrastructure.
“It’s akin to a wholesale generating plant, typically operating at a behind-the-meter level,” said project manager Dylan Stickney.
The site has ample sunlight exposure year round, and flat, arable land, which is favorable to solar developers. The rural site is also favorable for its proximity to the electric grid. Kingwood has acquired long-term leases from 17 landowners, most of whom are local residents.
Kingwood has completed its application for approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board, which ultimately makes the decision to allow the project to proceed. A certificate from OPSB allows for 30 years of operation, though Kingwood has the potential to extend the operation into the 40-year mark. Beyond that, the company would have to reacquire its permits to continue operating, Stickney said.
Kingwood has said that the project has the potential to bring $1.5 million in revenue to the county per year, through a PILOT program, or “payment in lieu of taxes,”expected to benefit local schools. Greene County commissioners have the authority to approve such a program but have said they do not plan to take this option.
Critics have opposed the project for a number of reasons, including potential impact to wildlife, affect on property values, visual impact, and maintenance.
Terry Entler, a member of Citizens for Green Acres, lives across the road from a proposed site. His wife has lived on their property for almost 50 years.
“I have nothing against solar energy. I’m getting ready to retire and have every intention of putting solar panels on my house. But residents feel lied to, and they feel like their voices aren’t being heard,” he said.
Greene County Commissioner Rick Perales said that the meeting is a good start but knowledge around the facility and its impacts is still a serious issue.
“The most important thing is for everyone to have accurate facts, and I don’t think it’s been done well,” he said. “The next step is to keep making sure that good information is out there, and for us to determine what our roles and responsibilities are.”
There is also impetus to make sure Kingwood Solar is accountable not only to the OPSB but also to the county and its residents.
“At the end of this, it has to be clear, black and white, what these guys are responsible for to restore this. And the tough part is, who knows what technology is going to be like 30 years from now,” Perales said.
Proponents of the farm have indicated that there are ways to maintain and restore the arable land that Kingwood resides on after the 30-year contract period. Vesper has partnered with Monarch Vegetation Services, Inc., which provides native grasses and plants planted around the solar panels, in order to maintain the soil for future farm use. The plants are also good for pollinators, have a deep root system, and mitigate water runoff.
“I’m a third generation farmer, my kids will be fourth generation,” said company president Robin Ernst, a Pennsylvania native. “They don’t seem to have any interest in farming. So if I skip a generation, and the next generation comes and says ‘yeah, Grandpa, I want to farm,’ then we have good quality land you can still farm on.”
Opponents, however, are concerned that the impact on the natural area will be more far-reaching.
”It comes down to there are better places to put solar,” Entler said. “And instead of taking up a small footprint, like a nuclear plant, they take up a huge footprint of our farmland.”
Moreover, many residents feel that they cannot get straight answers to their questions from Kingwood or the OPSB.
“A lot of my neighbors are angry. They’re upset,” Entler said. “Every time they ask a question, they get a political answer, or it gets walked around or it doesn’t get answered period. Yes, we can submit questions, but that doesn’t give us an answer. That gives you guys an answer.”
“Unless you pick up the phone and call me, that’s not a conversation,” he said. “There needs to be a dialogue between us and this company. They’re going to be our neighbors. Be a good neighbor.”
The OPSB is soliciting comments, letters, and emails from the public. Another public hearing will be scheduled for late summer or early fall.
“Public input is really important, and in previous cases I’ve seen that it can shape the outcome of a project, whether it slows a development down or make a project better,” said Matt Schilling, OPSB director of public affairs. “We’re very cognizant that everything has an impact, and it’s our job to ensure that should a project go forward, it does so in a way that minimizes impact to the community, to the environment, and to the electric grid, balancing all those issues.”
A recent bill passed by the Ohio legislature may complicate the issue further. House Bill 52, passed June 29, gives local officials more say on where solar projects and wind farms may go, essentially treating local officials as extensions of the OPSB.
Kingwood’s application for a permit with the OPSB is considered complete, so the bill is unlikely to apply to the project. However, Schilling said, it is fair that the OPSB “would take the spirit of the [bill] into account during its review.”
The earliest the OPSB could approve or deny the project is in early 2022.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.