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OPINION

Renewable energy to flourish in Trump Country

By GARY ABERNATHY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 24, 2019

HILLSBORO, Ohio — Those who suggest that President Donald Trump’s trade war with China could turn farmers against him forget that farmers, like most people, are not single-issue voters.

Evangelical Christians are among Trump’s biggest supporters, and rural America is where such churches thrive. Farmers tend to be churchgoers, and in southern Ohio, they also tend to be pro-life and, perhaps even more devoutly, pro-Second Amendment. Most farmers are hunters, with multiple firearms in their arsenals. They’re also big fans of Trump’s border wall with Mexico.

A Trump opponent in 2020 who is pro-choice, in favor of curtailing gun rights and opposed to the border wall (is there a serious Democratic hopeful who doesn’t check all those boxes?) cannot expect to make much of a dent in rural America, trade war or not.

But while most southern Ohio farmers are not deserting Trump, there are some who are ignoring his rhetoric on energy. Even as Trump belittles renewable power sources such as windmills — “When the wind doesn’t blow, just turn off the television, darling, please,” is a favorite Trump jab — nearly 5,000 acres of farmland here in Highland County could soon be converted from traditional corn and soybeans to shiny new solar panels.

Two projects expected to consist of a total of 1.5 million solar modules — creating the largest solar farm in Ohio — are rapidly working their way through state regulatory agencies. If they gain final approval, which seems likely, construction could start later this year. The combined 450-megawatt projects would be operational by 2021.

Company officials say Highland County (where I serve on the board of commissioners, which approves the county budget) was chosen because studies show a high rate of optimum sunshine in the region. Local skeptics pointed out that almost no zoning restrictions in the county were a more likely draw. In any case, for farm families here and elsewhere in Ohio — who are currently rushing to plant crops during a particularly wet spring — the real impetus for turning cropland into solar arrays is simple economics.

Small family farms have been on the decline for decades. In his 2012 book, “A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm,” author Robert Switzer noted, “In 1900, 42 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms; by 1990 that number had dwindled to less than 2 percent.” The trend has continued thanks to rising costs and growing debt, coupled with decades of stagnant crop prices and the move toward mass production on corporate megafarms. Plus, fewer sons and daughters are interested in continuing the family tradition, making the lure of per-acre prices well above market value offered by solar companies too tempting to turn down.

At recent public hearings I attended, some among the roughly 30 landowners who are selling or leasing their land for the projects extolled the benefits of solar, but most offered the frank explanation that the deals they were offered were a financial lifeline not only for them but for their children and grandchildren.

Among those opposed to the projects were neighboring farmers who are worried about lower property values, soil contamination issues and the loss of the region’s farming tradition. Plus, some said, they simply don’t want to wake up every day to the sight of thousands of solar modules in fields side by side with their crops.

The testimony was sometimes heart-wrenching. Some members of multigenerational farm families who have made deals with the solar companies spoke with tears in their eyes. Farming is in their blood, and in a perfect world, they would continue the family tradition. But for them, it’s been a long time since the world was perfect.

Lots of promises are being made by solar enthusiasts about jobs, infrastructure improvements and other benefits for this western corner of Appalachian Ohio. One handout from a solar advocacy group even suggested that such developments can help fight Ohio’s opioid epidemic.

But tipping the scale for most county residents is the promise of more dollars in local communities, particularly for education. Ohio’s school funding formula is largely based on local real estate taxes, leading to richer districts in the suburbs and poorer districts in many rural areas. Thanks to Ohio’s “payment in lieu of taxes” formula for renewable energy projects, solar companies will pay several thousand dollars per megawatt, adding up to millions in additional revenue in the coming years. A couple of small school districts where the projects are located will be the biggest beneficiaries here.

The president may ridicule wind and solar, but in the heart of Trump Country, renewable energy is about to flourish, providing electricity for thousands of customers — but only after turning off the lights in a few old barns.

Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.

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