Three Portage County townships want to restrict or ban solar and wind farms

Photo by the American Public Power Association

Citing zoning, safety and aesthetic concerns, three Portage County townships are imposing moratoriums or even seeking outright bans on commercial wind and solar farms.

Ohio law stipulates that individual townships can ask county commissioners to sign off on bans or more narrow zoning restrictions on solar and wind installations that produce more than 50 megawatts of power.

The townships themselves can regulate installations that produce under 50 megawatts.

To compare, a typical homeowner’s solar installation produces 1 to 10 kilowatts, said Gail Gifford, senior planner with the Portage County Regional Planning Commission.

Shalersville, Rootstown and Nelson have all taken aim at larger-scale renewable energy production.

A May 18 public hearing at Shalersville Town Hall saw some 30 attendees, all of them seeming intent on a township-wide ban. Speaking on record were two trustees, the township zoning inspector, and three or four people, Trustee Frank Ruehr said.

County Commissioner Tony Badalamenti, who officiated during the meeting, said everyone present was “on the same page” and indicated the commissioners’ intent to sign off on the township-wide ban.

Even with the ban in place, Shalersville trustees could consider applications from would-be developers. The trustees would have to hold additional public meetings and then vote on the matter, Ruehr said.

Individual residents may still install solar panels on their homes. Whether any company could install them on their property would be decided if the company wishes to do so. Geis Companies, for example, has a warehouse spanning over a million square feet on state Route 44 but has not approached the township about such a project, Ruehr said.

Stopping short of requesting an outright ban, trustees in two townships have set temporary moratoriums on wind and solar farms.

Nelson Township trustees initially approved a three-month moratorium on commercial wind and solar farms in December 2022. They recently replaced it with one that will expire on Aug. 31.

Rootstown trustees and zoning commission members have not discussed banning commercial wind and solar farms altogether, but they did set a 90-day moratorium on March 14.

Nelson Township Zoning Commission Chair Mike Graham said his volunteer members need more time “to complete the effort” of determining what restrictions the township can put on the installations.

“When you read our current zoning resolution, there was no real restriction on solar, so if someone wanted to put 30 acres of solar panels right next to you, there was no real restriction. No one wants to sit on their back porch and see 30 acres of solar panels. If you ask me, they’re ugly,” Graham said.

Rootstown officials are also concerned about zoning issues.

“What are things we can do?” Trustee Joe Paulus asked. “Do we want to allow a commercial solar farm? If we do, what kind of conditions do we want to put on that? How big? Location? Setbacks?”

The Rootstown moratorium lets township leaders specify restrictions and conditions before someone comes in and wants to install a solar farm on a 10-acre tract, he said.

Several trustees and zoning officials in Shalersville, Nelson, and Rootstown township have expressed fears about chemicals, hazardous waste, disposal and environmental impacts.

Gifford maintains that solar panels are built to withstand more than what is likely to occur: winds up to 140 mph, nickel-sized hail blowing at 70 mph, and fires.

“They have a fairly decent argument, but what about somebody with a shotgun going up and shooting at them? Suddenly you have a leak going into the ground, and then what do you do with the ground afterwards?” Shalersville Trustee Ron Kotkowski wondered.

Just as a roof is not built to withstand a tree falling on it, and a car is not built to withstand a bullet strike or a deer collision, solar panels can be damaged, Gifford said. However, even if they are, the panels can break without the cells breaking, and only a few types of panels contain toxic chemicals, she said.

Mother Nature conducted its own test in the Denver area on May 8, 2017, when the region was hit by a severe hailstorm that shattered car windows and left golf-ball sized dents on the roofs of vehicles and homes. Of the more than 3,000 solar panels at Golden, Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Lab’s research facility, exactly one was damaged, according to a report issued by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

“In the case of this hailstorm, the one glass module that cracked was apparently simultaneously hit by a number of hailstones in almost the exact same place,” the report stated. “This concentrated blow created a network of micro-cracks in the glass. Subsequent hailstones then left their ‘footprints’ of impact in that web of small fractures, which tally to what appears to be more than three-dozen hits.”

Even if solar panels are damaged, the U.S. EPA states that many can be recycled. That’s true even if they contain lead, cadmium or other heavy metals. The complicated part is that some have the metals and some don’t, so testing is advisable on a case-by-case basis, the EPA advises.

Kotkowski isn’t convinced.

“There hasn’t been enough research done to know whether it’s safe or not,” he said. “Before we get inundated with businesses that want to coerce landowners into renting their property out long-term for these solar farms, we would like to know exactly what is safe or not safe about them.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration acknowledges that “some [but specifically not all] solar thermal systems use potentially hazardous fluids to transfer heat.” Should those fluids leak, the EIA states that the environment could be negatively impacted, but adds that environmental laws exist to regulate the use and disposal of those materials.

The U.S. EPA’s stance is that even though some solar panels contain lead and cadmium that could leach into the ground, they are not classified as a “federal universal waste.” Some states have added solar panels as state-only universal waste, but Ohio is not one of them.

Panel manufacturers are responsible for testing the panels to determine toxicity, or lack of it, the EPA states.

Having heard that even wind propellers contain hazardous waste, Kotkowski said the trustees need time and information.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that wind turbines are mostly made of steel, fiberglass, resin or plastic, iron, copper and aluminum. The EIA states that most turbine blades are made of materials that can’t be recycled, but adds that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is conducting research to make the blades out of a thermoplastic resin system. Then, the EIA states, the blades would not only be recyclable, but would also reduce the energy required to make them.

Rootstown Township Trustee Dave McIntyre said the moratorium isn’t based on liking or not liking solar or wind farms.

“Anywhere you got neighbors, you got the ‘thoop thoop’ of the blades, and you got to be careful about birds,” he said, adding that he has heard that when solar panels go bad, the townships end up footing the bill.

Not true, Gifford said. Ohio law stipulates that solar panels be checked monthly, removed safely at no cost to the township, and that companies wishing to install large solar or wind facilities must post performance bonds for installations intended to produce more than 50 megawatts of power.

When the facilities are decommissioned, the money will already be there to do it safely even if the company no longer exists, ensuring the landowners will not be left paying an unexpected bill, Gifford said.

It could be a long wait. According to the Better Business Bureau, the best solar panels last about 40 years. Several manufacturer websites estimate a 25-year lifespan and suggest that even after that quarter century is up, the panels can still convert sunlight into solar energy, just less efficiently.

Nelson Trustee Anna Mae VanDerHoven looks at an even larger picture.

“If all these farms are turned into solar farms, where’s our food going to come from?” she asked.

However, no one has suggested there will be so much demand for Portage County farmland, and most of the food the community consumes is imported.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.