OHIO — As the world moves closer toward renewable paths to power, Ohio is taking center stage.
Toledo will soon be home to one of the largest solar panel manufacturers in the world, First Solar.
Meanwhile, people continue to install solar panels on their roofs, but there are some who are interested in "utility-scale solar" also known as "solar farms."
Acres of land are dedicated to installing and operating solar panels as a means of power. Landowners can lease their land to entities looking to use it for solar projects. In some instances, this can amount to a large profit for the landowner.
Farmers are finding themselves in unique positions of possibly profiting from solar.
Jason Rafeld is the executive director for Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition.
The coalition "is a trade organization representing utility-scale solar developers, manufacturers and industry leaders in the state of Ohio before the General Assembly and regulatory agencies," according to its website.
When it comes to approaching farmers about the possibility of adding solar panels, Rafeld said it's not hard to sell the idea.
"Most of the developers, most of our members of this organization, they contact the landowners, the farmers, usually with just a letter in the mail. It says, 'Hey. Here's who we are. Here's what we're looking for. Are you interested?' Many farmers, many landowners reach out back to the developers and once the developer has explained the opportunity, what they intend to do with the land, and frankly, the stable revenue that's going to come into that farm family for potentially generations — many farmers are really interested," Rafeld said.
Landowners sometimes find themselves in disagreement with members of the community who are opposed to the idea. Common criticisms may include that utility-scale solar takes up too much space or could shape the community landscape. Rafeld said the developer must respond to those criticisms and address concerns.
"The developer has a responsibility to respond to all of those issues and the members that I have, they all want to," Rafeld said."Community engagement is very, very important. There is a strong component of education within that community engagement. Solar farms are big. They take up a little space, but that's why, like I just mentioned, that these landowners are paid a very fair, frankly a high revenue for doing that.
Rafeld continued: "Change is hard for everybody. It's harder for some than others and things will be a little bit different, but I would also suggest that the overwhelming positives really outweigh what I would consider to be pretty small negatives. As far as what it looks like, solar farms are very low to the ground. These panels are about 10-12 feet high. That's about as high as they get, so it's not that they are visually obtrusive. And the developers that I work with, they all put up significant landscaping or a view-shed as we call it of indigenous trees and shrubs that will really make that sideline look frankly normal."
Another concern landowners may have is what happens to the land after the lease expires — who is responsible for cleaning up the land, removing equipment and what happens if you want to grow crops again?
"Very understandable," Rafeld said. "(Ohio) is poised to be a national leader, but it's happening now. We've got one operational utility-scale solar. Of course, they'll be many more operational in the future. So what happens is, there are a couple of things. One is that there is state law. There's existing law, which requires what is called a decommissioning bond, which is frankly an insurance policy that's got enough money to take care of all the equipment, making sure it is removed or can be removed and that the land is returned to as good or better than it was."
Rafeld also mentioned Senate Bill 52 as another possible protection.
"There's also the lease which will be signed by the landowner or farmer and the development company and owner and operator of that solar farm that can spell out particularly specific terms that are important to the landowner," he said.