By supporting community solar farms, Ohio will help family farmers, and their neighbors: Ben Moran
MINERVA, Ohio – Like many in Ohio, my family weighs our desires for independence and financial stability as we plan the future of our small farm. We want a real estate plan that makes good use of our land and converts a reasonable amount of work into a stable income. Building a community solar farm offers the future we hope for, but families like mine can’t do it without changing Ohio law.
To see why, it helps to understand what it takes to build a solar system on my family’s property. An energy company would lease part of our farm for 20 years (a little less than the lifespan of a solar panel). Beyond our written agreement and an occasional meeting, they took care of the entire process, from paperwork to installation and final removal of the panels. In fact, the lease would include a legal guarantee that the solar system would be removed when it expires so that our land can be returned for any use we deem appropriate. With an ongoing rate of $ 800 to $ 1,000 per acre per year in other states, leasing real estate for a community solar is a financially sound choice for our family.
There is one problem, however: the Ohio Electricity Supply Act doesn’t allow other homeowners to purchase the electricity produced by a solar farm on our land. Under current law, my parents can only produce as much electricity as they use. Those who want to take advantage of clean, cheaper local energy but don’t have the means to produce it themselves are usually out of luck. This legal state not only hurts the farmers and others who operate solar panels in the community, but also the individuals and businesses who benefit from the power source, as well as the electricians who work to bring the solar parks to life.
The restrictions on solar energy are even worse when compared to the lack of production controls for other energy sources. Many landowners enjoy the benefits of unlimited consumption and sales of oil and gas on their land. In contrast, current law restricts solar systems based on past utility bills in such a way that people are discouraged from becoming truly energy independent. If a homeowner wants to change their heating source to rely only on the electricity they generate themselves, they cannot install the solar panels in advance. Ironically, a solar supplier suggested increasing our allowable solar capacity by installing air conditioning and wasting electricity! This ridiculous logic is a sign of a system in need of reform.
While various legal frameworks could fix this problem, virtual network metering is possibly the most flexible. With the virtual network measurement, the electricity generated on our farm is credited by our neighbors and the corresponding electricity consumption is deducted from their electricity bill. If communal solar energy is cheaper than the current rate of electricity, up to a thousand houses in our region could benefit from it. If not (an unlikely scenario given the falling price of solar energy), no one is forced to join the program.
Utility companies certainly deserve compensation for using the electricity infrastructure as the transfer of electricity from our property to others requires the use of their power lines. These costs can easily be accounted for with fixed fees or minimum bills, which removes fears that the costs of the lines would shift to others on the network.
Twenty states have a virtual grid measurement or other community solar framework. Joining Ohio could bring income to farmers, savings to homeowners, and jobs for electricians and solar installers. At the same time, they would increase the independence, resilience and efficiency of our energy system. I hope our lawmakers will monitor the changes needed to make community solar parks a reality in our state.
Ben Moran is a Ph.D. Biology student at Stanford University studying how human land use choices affect wildlife health. He also manages forestry on his family’s property in Minerva, Ohio.
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