CHILLICOTHE – Two Ross County sites are being looked at as possible future sites of solar farms that could significantly impact the tax base of the school districts and townships in which they are located, as well as the county.

Representatives from First Solar in Houston, Texas, have been exploring a pair of potential local projects for one of its customers — which generally are large utility companies or large commercial or industrial firms with significant power needs. One of them, the larger project of the two, is being eyed for farmland in the Yellowbud area in Union Township. The other would be located in Buckskin Township.

Both sites will compete with a few other locations across the state, and in each of those communities, representatives of companies like First Solar are gauging local commitments as they consider where to push projects forward.

On Monday, Karl Pierce and Jesse Cohen, from First Solar, and attorney Christopher Clements, of Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease out of Columbus, met with Ross County Commissioners seeking a Memorandum of Understanding expressing county support of an application for a state tax exemption that is available for alternative energy projects. The three were joined by Tammy Eallonardo, economic development director for Greater Chillicothe & Ross County Development, who also has been involved in the process.

“A few months ago, we met with all the townships and school districts involved in the two projects First Solar is looking at in this county, and the meetings went well, and we got at least their verbal support, and we asked them to send letters to (county commissioners),” Clements said.

Letters of support have been sent to commissioners by both the Union-Scioto and Greenfield school districts, as well as by Buckskin Township. Union Township has expressed verbal support, and Clements said Monday he would be getting back in touch with township officials to see if a letter will be forthcoming.

The Yellowbud project, if constructed, would be able to generate 147 megawatts of power, while the Buckskin one would be looking at around 100 megawatts. While the exemption being pursued from the state would exempt the property taxes on the solar equipment and the land, it also requires an annual payment instead of taxes of between $7,000 and $9,000 per megawatt. That payment would be between $1.029 million on the low end to $1.323 million on the high end into the county’s coffers to then be distributed in the same way property tax revenue is dealt out to the townships and school districts where the projects are located.

Should both the Yellowbud and Buckskin Township projects be selected to move forward, the total payment from the two would be between $1.729 million and $2.23 million annually.

Regarding jobs, Pierce and Cohen acknowledge that once a solar farm is completed, it doesn’t require a great deal of manpower to operate. During the roughly 12-month construction period, however, Pierce said that as many as 300 to 400 workers would be needed at the work’s peak and that there is a requirement that 80 percent of those workers must live in Ohio.

Also, he added, the construction period would offer a significant boost in business for local service providers like restaurants, hotels, stores and food trucks, especially during the roughly six months of that period that would qualify as the peak time for workers.

The representatives from First Solar said that in choosing potential project locations, they first conduct a market evaluation and look at an area’s power transmission systems to see if they have the potential to take additional electricity onto the power grid. They then begin talking to landowners for property they will need to get options on for lease or purchase. Next comes the approval from affected townships and school districts and the pursuit of written support from the county, which is where they are now locally.

Up next would be preparing an application for the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), which will have to include field studies of the properties involved. Those studies run anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to conduct, and when combined with property option payments can push a project investment into the $500,000 to $1 million range before construction even begins, the First Solar representatives said.

The commissioners asked Clements to provide a sample Memorandum of Understanding for them to review, but each expressed a desire to support the projects and work with First Solar to try and secure them for Ross County. Pierce said members of the public would have two opportunities to offer input should things move forward, both through a public comment period for the OPSB application and through open houses the company would plan to conduct for each project.

The representatives estimated that the permitting process for at least one of the projects could begin as soon as the end of this year if a decision is made to move forward, with construction likely to take place in 2020 in that scenario. That decision depends on securing the customer that would be purchasing the power produced by the farm.

“We are competing with other companies just like ourselves at projects in other parts of the state,” Pierce said. “So we compete, and hopefully when we win, we get to sign the power purchase agreement, and that puts everything in place basically setting up our ability to construct.”

The World Economic Forum estimates solar and wind are now the same price or cheaper than fossil fuels in more than 30 countries. Newsy

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Solar panels are laid out in Mississippi. Ross County officials are mulling over a pair of proposals to bring solar farms to the area.(Photo: Susan Broadbridge, Associated Press)