MT. ORAB, Ohio (Farm and Dairy) — It started with an envelope in the mail. The first one came in 2012, Chad Hawk said. The envelope contained an offer to pay the Hawks to put some of their land into a solar lease.
Hawk told his wife, Melanie, he wasn’t interested. Corn and bean prices were high. It wasn’t worth losing their farmland to a bunch of solar panels.
Another letter came the next year, and the year after that. By 2014, the price of corn and soybeans had dropped and the solar lease looked more appealing, Chad Hawk said.
“I had a professor in college who said, “You’ve got to look at everything as a business,” Chad Hawk said. “For $1,000 an acre, I couldn’t farm it for that.”
The Hawks signed a solar lease in 2016 to put about 500 acres of their land in the new Hillcrest solar project, in Green Township, Brown County. The project is nearing completion, which means the Hawks will soon get the big payout.
“We went from farming corn and soybeans to sunshine,” Melanie Hawk said.
The 200 megawatt Hillcrest solar project was the first utility-scale solar project to submit a full application, on June 29, 2017, to the Ohio Power Siting Board, the regulatory agency that approves big solar projects. It will become the second project to be completed and operational.
Hardin I, in Hardin County, applied shortly after Hillcrest and was permitted around the same time, but it beat Hillcrest to the finish line by a couple of months.
The two projects kicked off the solar boom in Ohio. Since Hillcrest and Hardin were approved in February 2018, 11 other utility-scale projects have been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, and 25 more are pending approval or in the pre-application phase.
Large scale solar projects are proving to be a boon for some farmers, like the Hawks. It’s reminiscent of the shale gas leasing boom that took place in eastern Ohio a decade ago.
These solar projects, and the massive acreage they cover, are also causing discord in some communities. Neighbors to the panels don’t always reap the financial benefits that the large landowners do, but they have to live with the new view.
Balancing those two sides is proving difficult in many rural areas, but it’s the new reality dozens of small towns across Ohio will grapple with for years to come.
Ohio is a sweet spot for large scale solar development, particularly the western half of the state.
Doug Herling, vice president of development with Open Road Renewables, the company that developed the Hillcrest project, said there is a robust transmission system, and capacity within the grid to handle more power.
The process to get a utility-scale solar project, which is anything with more than 50 megawatts of capacity, approved takes place entirely at the state level. That’s attractive to developers, because it simplifies the permitting process. No jumping around from local to county to state approvals. It’s all rolled into one process laid out by the Ohio Power Siting Board.
There’s considerable need for electricity, Herling said, with Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati and other big cities spread across the state.
There’s also a demand for it. Many corporations have renewable energy goals. Amazon recently announced its investing in two more solar projects in Ohio. That’s in addition to the 10 solar projects, including Hillcrest, that it is buying power from across the state. Facebook is buying power from the Hardin solar farm.
On top of all those things, there is an abundance of flat, cleared land and people willing to lease that land to developers in western Ohio, Herling said. Farmland is basically the perfect place to put a solar array.
It took nearly three years for Open Road Renewables to acquire all the land needed to develop the rest of the Hillcrest project. It started with letters, like the one the Hawks received, “explaining who we are, what it is we’re doing and why we’re interested in the area,” Herling said. “And then we see who gets back to us.”
Once the conversation starts, they get out in the community, meeting at kitchen tables and touring farms, Herling said.
Solar projects need big swaths of land near transmission lines. The rule of thumb for utility-scale solar land usage is one megawatt of capacity will take up, on average, about seven acres of land. That means the smallest utility-scale solar project would still take up 350 acres.
Only landowners with large acreage will get an opportunity to lease their land and benefit directly from the project. Chad and Melanie Hawk are the largest land contributors to the Hillcrest project, which has a footprint of about 2,000 acres. The panels sit on about 1,300 acres. There are 35 other landowners in the project.
According to the Hillcrest certification order, there are 111 homes within 1,000 feet of the project; 11 homes not participating in the lease are within 100 feet of the solar panels.
Hillcrest will pay about $1.8 million annually to Brown County, Western Brown School District and Green Township for 35 years as payment in lieu of taxes.
The Hawks both came from farming families. Chad Hawk runs a grain operation with his father and other family members. Melanie Hawk comes from a cow-calf operation, which she still operates on her parent’s farm.
They manage family land together, but bought their first farmland as a couple in the early 2000s. It was near Chad’s grandparents’ house and the main farm, where he spent much of his time growing up. The Hawks bought more land later on, eventually stringing together more than 500 contiguous acres in Brown County, just over the county line with Highland County. They lived nearby in the small town of Buford.
Farming is full of ups and downs. Some years went well. Other times, “we hit some rough years where it was like, ‘Oh my God, are we going to make it?” Melanie Hawk said. But they made it work. In addition to farming, Chad Hawk also works for Nutrien Ag Solutions.
When the opportunity came to put their land in the solar lease, they weighed their options. Solar leases pay landowners a smaller rate per acre to hold the land while the project is developed, permitted and built. The big checks with the higher per acre rate begin once the project is operational. It’s likely that not all the solar projects in the Ohio Power Siting Board queue will be built. Some farmers won’t see that big payday at the end. The Hawks knew that going in. They weren’t desperate for the money from the solar lease.
“We knew, on a perfect year, what we made per acre,” Melanie Hawk said. “And when they came to us and offered us $250 more per acre, it was a no brainer.”
If the project was built, they wouldn’t have to worry anymore about commodity markets or the weather. They could continue farming with family and enjoy it.
The Hawks hired a lawyer familiar with energy leases, recommended by Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, to craft a contract. It took several months to get the right wording. They wanted to make sure their land was protected and their neighbors were taken care of, Melanie Hawk said.
Hillcrest is a patchwork of panels between State Route 286, Greenbush Road, US Route 68 and State Route 134. The panels sit in four different sections, each fenced off with chain link fence topped with rows of barbed wire.
PCL Construction Services, a global construction company based in Denver, is building the solar farm. Panels are still being installed in one section, but the others are complete and being commissioned, said Bill Behling, director of project development with Innergex, the company that built and manages Hillcrest. In all, there will be about 600,000 panels installed. It’s expected to be done and operational sometime in May.
Construction began in January 2020. That’s when hundreds of workers descended on the tiny rural towns of Buford and Mt. Orab.
With the construction phase, came problems: increased traffic and noise, workers speeding and littering, dirt and rocks being strewn all over the roads. Those are just a few of the complaints lodged with Innergex and reported to the Ohio Power Siting Board in a quarterly complaint report.
Amanda Widmeyer filed a complaint after a worker from the site drove off the road and got stuck in a ditch at the end of her yard. She said the worker knocked on her door at 6 a.m. to see if her husband could pull his vehicle out.
“He’s trying to get out of the ditch, he’s tearing up my yard, leaving fluids everywhere,” she told Farm and Dairy. “Eventually, a company truck came and pulled the vehicle out.”
The worker who got stuck in Widmeyer’s yard was identified and fired, after other neighbors also reported he was speeding and driving recklessly.
A couple neighbors told Farm and Dairy how loud it was last summer when the posts for the racking system were being driven into the ground.
“It was a couple months of continuous noise,” said Eddie Jones, who has panels right behind his house. Though, he said he doesn’t mind the panels now.
Construction is winding down, but trucks, skid loaders and other heavy equipment criss cross the roads throughout the day. A street sweeper runs periodically to keep the roads clear of dirt, rocks and other debris.
Time will tell
Once the construction crews leave, things will quiet down and the people living and farming around Hillcrest will be left with one another. The panels will track the sun across the sky for the next 35 years, making a faint clicking noise as they go.
The solar project strained the Hawks’ relationships with some farmers and other people in the area. Chad Hawk said they lost some rented ground because the Hawks’ participation in the lease.
“You just try to understand them, and they have to try to understand you,” Melanie Hawk said.
The Hawks will get their land back in 35 years. Or maybe not. Innergex has the option to renew the lease. Time will tell how the relationships with their neighbors fare.
When the pandemic began, they moved from Buford to Melanie’s parents’ home in nearby Hillsboro and bought her parent’s farm. That’s something they couldn’t have done without the solar panel money. Once the project is operational, they should be able to pay off all their debt in four or five years, Melanie Hawk said.
“[Chad’s] got mud running through his veins as much as I’ve got black Angus blood running through mine,” she said. “I told him, ‘Don’t be sad. For that price, we’ll buy him some more dirt to play in.’ We’ll continue to farm. We love it.”