Category Archives: Renewable Energy

The Ohio Ag Law Blog–The Ag Law Harvest

Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall

The holidays are almost here, 2019 is almost over, but the world of ag law isn’t taking a break.  From cannabidiol, to Ohio bills on water quality and wind power, to a cage-free egg law in Michigan, here’s the latest roundup of agricultural law news you may want to know:

FDA warns companies about cannabidiol products. If you’ve been following the hemp saga unfold over the past year, you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been contemplating what to do with cannabidiol, or CBD from derived hemp products.  In addition to manufacturing standards, FDA has also considered how CBD products are marketed and labeled.  Although FDA has issued no official rules on CBD marketing and labeling, the agency has warned a number of companies that their marketing of CBD violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). On November 25, FDA sent warning letters to 15 companies.  FDA asserts that the companies “are using product webpages, online stores and social media to market CBD products in interstate commerce in ways that violate the FD&C Act.”  In particular, FDA is apprehensive about those companies who market CBD products in ways that claim they can treat diseases or be used therapeutically for humans and animals.  Since CBD has not been approved by FDA or found safe for these uses, companies cannot make such claims.  You can see FDA’s news release for more information and for the list of companies.

It won’t be as difficult for financial institutions to serve hemp related businesses.  Federal agencies and state bank regulators released a statement clarifying what is required of banks when hemp businesses are customers.  Since hemp was removed from the federal list of controlled substances, banks no longer have to file a Suspicious Activity Report on every customer involved in growth or cultivation of hemp just because they grow hemp.  This action will make it easier for those legally cultivating hemp to work with banks and obtain loans for their farms.  For more information, the agencies’ press release is available here.

Ohio House considers the Senate’s water quality bill.  Ohio’s House Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 2 just last week.  The bill would implement a Statewide Watershed and Planning Program through the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Under the bill, ODA would be charged with categorizing watersheds in Ohio and appointing coordinators for each of the watersheds.  ODA and the coordinators would work closely with soil and water conservation districts to manage watersheds.  Ag groups such as the Sheep Improvement Association, the Cattleman’s Association, the Pork Council, the Dairy Producers Association, and the Poultry Association testified in favor of SB 2.

Ohio House committee debates wind bill.  The House Energy & Natural Resources
Committee was busy last week—in addition to SB 2, they also discussed House Bill 401.  In the simplest terms, if passed, HB 401 would allow townships to hold a referendum on approved wind projects.  This means that with a vote, townships could overturn decisions made by the Ohio Power and Siting Board (OPSB).  In the committee hearing, wind industry representatives argued that such a referendum would be harmful, since it would overturn OPSB decisions after companies have already spent a great deal of money to be approved by the Board.  They also argued that the bill singles out the wind industry and does not allow referendums on other energy projects.  Republican committee members signaled that they may be willing to revise the language of HB 401 to allow a referendum before OPSB decisions.

Iowa’s ag-gag law is paused.  In May, we wrote about Iowa’s new ag-gag law, which was the state’s second attempt to ban undercover whistleblowers and journalists from secretly filming or recording at livestock production facilities.  In response, numerous animal rights groups sued the state, claiming that the law unconstitutionally prevents their speech based on content and viewpoint.  On December 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction, which means that the state will not be able to enforce the ag-gag law while the lawsuit against it is being considered. The preliminary injunction can be found here.

Cage free eggs coming to Michigan in 2024. Michigan lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 174, which, among other things, will require that all birds producing eggs both in and out of the state be housed in “cage-free” facilities by 2024.  The cage-free facilities will have to allow hens to roam unrestricted with the exception of exterior walls, and some types of fencing to contain the birds.  In an indoor facility, the farmer must be able to stand in the hens’ usable floor space while caring for them.  In addition, the facilities must have enrichments for hens such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas. Michigan joins California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington in banning non-cage-free eggs.  Note that Michigan’s law will apply to Ohio egg producers who sell eggs to buyers in Michigan.

Case watch:  hearing set in Lake Erie Bill of Rights case.   The court has set a January 28, 2020 hearing date for the slow moving federal lawsuit challenging the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) enacted by Toledo voters in February.  The hearing will likely focus on several motions to dismiss the case filed by the parties on both sides of the controversy, but Judge Zouhary indicated that he’ll set the agenda for the hearing prior to its date.  Drewes Farm Partnership filed the federal lawsuit against the City of Toledo in February, claiming that LEBOR is unconstitutional and violates several Ohio laws.  The State of Ohio was permitted to join the farm as plaintiffs in the case, but the court denied motions by Toledoans for Safe Water and the Lake Erie Ecosystem to join as defendants in the case.   For more on the LEBOR lawsuit, refer to this post and this post.  For our explanation of LEBOR, see this bulletin.

Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog as we continue to track these and other developments in agricultural law through the holidays and beyond.

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Ohio Ag Law Blog–Ohio Legislation on the Move

Written by: Ellen Essman

We haven’t done a legislative update in a while—so what’s been going on in the Ohio General Assembly? Without further ado, here is an update on some notable ag-related bills that have recently passed one of the houses, been discussed in committee, or been introduced.

  • House Bill 7, “Create water quality protection and preservation”

This bill passed the House in June, but the Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on it just last month.  HB 7 would create both the H2Ohio Trust Fund and the H2Ohio Advisory Council.  To explain these entities in the simplest terms, the H2Ohio Advisory Council would decide how to spend the money in the H2Ohio Trust Fund.  The money could be used for grants, loans, and remediation projects to address water quality priorities in the state, to fund research concerning water quality, to encourage cooperation in addressing water quality problems among various groups, and for priorities identified by the Ohio Lake Erie commission.  The Council would be made up of the following: the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie commission, one state senator from each party appointed by the President of the Senate, one state representative from each party appointed by the Speaker of the House, and appointees from the Governor to represent counties, municipal corporations, public health, business or tourism, agriculture, statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and institutions of higher education. Under HB 7, the ODA, OEPA, and ODNR would have to submit an annual plan to be accepted or rejected by the Council, which would detail how the agencies planned to use their money from the Fund. You can find the bill in its current form here.

  • House Bill 24, “Revise Humane Society law”

HB 24 passed the House unanimously on October 30, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.  The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations and require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve.  Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense.  Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats.  You can read HB 24 here.

  • House Bill 160, “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”

Since our last legislative update, HB 160 has passed the House and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.  At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol must in Ohio obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol.  This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. To read the bill, click here.

  • House Bill 168, “Establish affirmative defense-certain hazardous substance release”

This bill was passed in the House back in May, but there have been several committee hearings on it this fall.  HB 168 would provide a bona fide prospective purchaser of a facility that was contaminated with hazardous substances before the purchase with immunity from liability to the state in a civil action.  In other words, the bona fide prospective purchaser would not have the responsibility of paying the state of Ohio for their investigations and remediation of the facility. In order to claim this immunity, the purchaser would have to show that they fall under the definition of a bona fide prospective purchaser, that the state’s cause of action rests upon the person’s status as an owner or operator of the facility, and that the person does not impede a response action or natural resource restoration at the facility. You can find the bill and related information here.

  • House Bill 183, “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers”

House Bill 183 was discussed in the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on November 12.  This bill would authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program.  Another nonrefundable tax credit would be available for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers.  ODA would be in charge of certifying individuals as “beginning farmers” and approving eligible financial management programs. HB 183 is available here. A companion bill (SB 159) has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Ways & Means Committee, but no committee hearings have taken place.

  • House Bill 373, “Eliminate apprentice/special auctioneer licenses/other changes”

HB 373 was introduced on October 22, and the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee held a hearing on it on November 12. This bill would make numerous changes to laws applicable to auctioneers.  For instance, it would eliminate the requirement that a person must serve as an apprentice auctioneer prior to becoming an auctioneer; instead, it would require applicants for an auctioneers’ license to pass a course. The bill would also require licensed auctioneers to complete eight continuing education hours prior to renewing their license.  HB 373 would give ODA the authority to regulate online auctions conducted by  a human licensed auctioneer, and would require people auctioning real or personal property on the internet to be licensed as an auctioneer. To read the bill in its entirety and see all the changes it would make, click here.

  • Senate Bill 2, “Create watershed planning structure”

Since our last legislative post, SB 2 has passed the Senate and is now in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director.  Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region.  The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices.  Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus.  Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption. The text of SB 2 is available here.

  • Senate Bill 234, “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”

Senate Bill 234 was just introduced on November 6, 2019.  The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote.  The bill would also change minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured.  SB 234 is available here.  A companion bill was also recently introduced in the House.  HB 401 can be found here.

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Keeping up with all the recent RFS developments requires some energy

Written by Ellen Essman

If you’ve been keeping up with the ag news lately, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  As a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel.” Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops such as corn and soybeans. Lately, you may have heard discussion about a controversial new rule regarding the volumes of biofuels that are required to be mixed with oil.  While all that talk has been going on, there has also been a lawsuit against the EPA for RFS exemptions given to certain oil refineries.  Congress has been examining the exemptions as well. Having trouble keeping all of this RFS information straight? We’ll help you sort it out.

EPA proposes new RFS rule

As we explained in our last Ag Law Harvest post, available here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the RFS program in 2020 and 2021.  Agricultural and biofuels groups are not pleased with the proposed blending rules, arguing that the way EPA proposes to calculate biofuel volumes would result in much lower volumes than they were originally promised by President Trump. (The original promise was made in part to make up for waivers the Trump EPA had given to oil refineries.) Conversely, EPA and the Trump administration contend that the proposed rule does meet the previously agreed upon biofuel volumes.  A hearing on the proposed rule was held on October 30, where many agriculture and biofuels groups expressed their concerns.  The oil industry was also represented at the hearing.  Members of the oil industry feel that the cost of mixing in biofuels is too high.  It is unlikely any deal was struck at the hearing, but there is still an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule if you wish.  Comments are due on November 29, 2019.  You can click here for commenting instructions, as well as for a link to submit your comment online.

Ag and biofuels groups sue the EPA

In the midst of the argument over how the volumes of biodiesel under the RFS will be calculated, another related quarrel has emerged. At the center of this dispute are exemptions EPA has given to “small refineries” in the oil industry. The number of exemptions given has increased drastically under the Trump administration, which in turn has lessened the demand for biofuels made from crops like corn and soybeans.  On October 23, 2019, agriculture and biofuel groups filed a petition against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In the petition, the groups ask the court to review a decision made in August 2019 which retroactively exempted over 31 small refineries from meeting their 2018 biofuels requirements.  The petitioning groups include Renewable Fuels Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, National Biodiesel Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Farmers Union.

How does the small refinery exemption work?

Typically, an oil refinery would have to mix a set volume of renewable fuels, like biofuels, into their gasoline or diesel fuel. The volumes are set annually. Small refineries, which are defined as refineries where “the average aggregate daily crude oil throughput does not exceed 75,000 barrels,” can petition the EPA for an exemption from meeting their renewable fuel obligations. Exemptions are typically given temporarily if the refinery can show they would suffer economic hardship if they were made to blend their fuel with biofuel.  A refinery seeking an exemption has to include a number of records showing their economic hardship in their petition, such as tax filings and financial statements.  EPA’s website explaining the small refinery exemption is available here.

Why are ag and biofuel groups asking for judicial review?

Why are the groups we mentioned above upset about this particular set of small refinery exemptions?  Well, first of all, the groups point to the brevity of the EPA’s decision. (The decision document can be found in the link to the petition, listed above.)  The EPA’s decision document uses only two pages to explain their decision on 36 small refinery petitions.  Because the decision was so short, the groups feel that EPA did not include the analysis of economic hardship for each refinery that they believe is required by the Clean Air Act and RFS regulations.  Essentially, the groups argue that the EPA has not provided enough evidence or explanation for awarding the exemptions.  You can read the groups’ press release explaining their reasoning here.

Underlying all of this is the fact that more small refinery exemptions means lower demand for biofuels.  In fact, the ag and biofuel groups claim that due to the 31 exemptions made in August alone, 1.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel were not used.  In addition, the 31 exemptions are just a few of many awarded by Trump’s EPA.  By all accounts, since Trump took office, there has been a sharp increase in exemptions granted.  EPA has data on the number of exemptions available here.  The first year the Trump administration made exemptions is 2016.

Congress gets in on the action

It seems as though the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change (part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) is also worried about EPA’s exemptions, or waivers, for small oil refineries.  On October 29, 2019, the Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled “Protecting the RFS: The Trump Administration’s Abuse of Secret Waivers.”  In fact, in their memo about the hearing, the Subcommittee cited some of the same issues in the lawsuit we discussed above; namely the increase in waivers and the consequent effect on biofuel demand. Testimony was heard from both ag/biofuels and oil representatives.

In the hearing, the Subcommittee also considered the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act of 2019.”  The text of the bill is available here.  The bill would require small refineries to submit petitions for exemptions from RFS requirements annually by June 1.  Additionally, it would require information in the waiver petitions to be available to the American public.  For information and documents related to the hearing, as well as a video stream of the hearing, click here.

What happens next?

As you can see, we’re playing a waiting game on three separate fronts.  For the RFS rule, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of comments are submitted, and whether or not the EPA takes those comments into account when it writes the final rule.  As for the lawsuit, all eyes are on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The court could determine that the law does indeed require EPA to include more information and analysis to explain their reasons for exemption. On the other hand, the court could find that EPA’s decision document is sufficient under the law.  In Congress, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed bill gets out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and onto the House floor.  We will be keeping track of the RFS developments on all fronts and keep you updated on what happens!

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New guide helps farmland owners considering solar leasing

Large “utility-scale” solar energy development is on the rise in Ohio.  In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval.   These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland.   The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties.  About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture.

With solar energy development, then, comes a new demand for farmland:  solar leasing.  Many Ohio farmland owners have received post cards and letters about the potential of leasing land to a solar energy developer.  This prospect might sound appealing at first, particularly in a difficult farming year like this one.  But leasing land for a solar energy development raises many implications for the land, family, farm operation, and community.  It’s a long-term legal commitment–usually 25 years or more–that requires careful assessment and a bit of homework.

To help landowners who are considering solar leasing, we’ve joined forces with Eric Romich, OSU Extension’s Field Specialist in Energy Education, to publish the Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing.  The online guide explains the state of solar energy development in Ohio, reviews initial considerations for leasing farmland to solar, and describes legal documents and common terms used for solar leasing.  The guide’s solar leasing checklist organizes the information into a list of issues to consider, things to do, people to consult, and questions to ask before deciding whether to enter into a solar lease.

The Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing is available at no cost on our Farm Office website, here.  A separate Law Bulletin of The Farmland Owner’s Solar Leasing Checklist is also available on Farm Office, here.

We produced the guide in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas, with funding from the National Agricultural Library, Agricultual Research Service, at the United States Department of Agriculture.

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The Weekend Read: Ohio Case Law Update

Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program

This weekend, as you enjoy your morning cup of coffee and find yourself wondering what’s the news in our court system, look no further than this blog post.  Every now and then there’s a new court opinion related to agricultural law that peaks our interest and makes us want to share a summary of what happened.  This week we read cases about the federal Takings Clause, wind energy, and oil and gas rights.  Here are the stories:

  • A property owner may bring a claim in federal court under the Fifth Amendment when the government has violated the Takings Clause by taking property without just compensation.  This case involved a township ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be held open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.  A property owner with a small family graveyard was notified that she was violating the ordinance.  The property owner filed suit in state court arguing that the ordinance constituted a taking of her property, but did not seek compensation.  The township responded by saying it would withdraw the notice of violation and not enforce the ordinance against her.  The state court said that the matter was therefore resolved, but the property owner was not satisfied with that decision.  She decided to bring a takings claim in federal court.

Before this decision, there was a roadblock to bringing such claim.  Lower courts had read a previous Supreme Court decision to say that if a state or local government commits a taking, the property owner would first have to seek a remedy through the state’s adverse condemnation procedure before going to federal court.  But in doing so, the property owner would actually not have a chance to bring the claim in federal court because the federal court would have to give full faith and credit to the state court decision.  At first, that seemed like what would happen to the property owner because the state court had decided that the issue was moot since the township had agreed not to enforce the ordinance against her.  But the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the property owner by taking the rare action of overruling its prior precedent.  Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, was not an Ohio court case, but rather one that made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read the case, click HERE.

The final opinion handed down by the justices is certainly important, but it is also notable for Ohio because the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF) submitted an amicus brief in support of the property owner through its legal counsel, Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease, LLP of Columbus.  The brief cited examples in Ohio showing that the Supreme Court’s prior precedent was causing problems for Ohio property owners by limiting their access to federal courts in Fifth Amendment takings claims.  OFBF has noted that this was the first time it had submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Ohio Power Siting Board’s approval of new wind-turbine models in facility’s certificate does not constitute an amendment to the certificate for the purposes of triggering current turbine-setback requirements.  In 2014, the Ohio Power Siting Board approved an application by Greenwich Windpark to construct a wind farm in Huron County with up to 25 wind turbines.  In the initial application, all of the wind turbines would have used the same model of turbine.  Just over a year after the application was approved, the wind farm developer applied for an amendment to add three additional models to the approved wind turbine model list, noting that the technology had advanced since its initial application.  Two of the three newer models would be larger than the originally planned model, but would occupy the same locations and would comply with the minimum setback requirements at the time the application was approved.

The issue involved whether the new setback requirements, which were put in place by the state between the initial approval and the requested change, should apply.  An amendment to a certificate would trigger the current wind turbine setback requirements.  Greenwich Windpark wanted the less restrictive setback requirements in their initial application to still apply to the newer models, but a local group wanted the more restrictive setback requirements to apply.  The Ohio Power Siting Board said that adding the new wind turbine models would not be an amendment, and would not trigger the more restrictive setbacks.  The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the Ohio Power Siting Board, explaining that the Ohio General Assembly wanted the Ohio Power Siting Board to have broad authority to regulate wind turbines.  This case is cited as In re Application of 6011 Greenwich Winkpark, L.L.C., 2019-Ohio-2406, and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.

  • Children claiming to be heirs of reserved oil and gas rights are in privity with previous owners of the interest when connected by an auditor’s deed specifically mentioning those interests.  The issue was whether children claiming their father’s oil and gas interests were blocked by the legal doctrine of issue preclusion from obtaining clear title to their interest when a previous Ohio Dormant Mineral Act (ODMA) lawsuit quieted title to mineral interests underlying their claim.  This preclusion would be possible because the previous owners’ interests formed the basis of the father’s interest.  Even though they were not named in the previous ODMA lawsuit, by virtue of being in privity, or legally connected, to the previous owners, the children would be bound by the previous lawsuit because the ODMA lawsuit cleared the previous owners’ interests along with any interests in their successors and assigns.  Ultimately the court found that because the children stood in their father’s shoes, and his claim would be linked to the previous owners’ claims in the land, the previous ODMA lawsuit binds the children.  This had the effect of eliminating the children’s claims in the oil and gas rights.  This case is cited as Winland v. Christman, 2019-Ohio-2408 (7th Dist.), and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.

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Join us July 15 for Solar Leasing 101

Many landowners across the state have been contacted by solar energy developers interested in leasing farmland for utility-scale solar energy production.  The combination of improved technology, reduced production costs, the phase-out of federal tax credits, and the willingness of landowners to enter into long-term leases have made 2019 a sunny year for entering into solar leases.

The sudden surge of solar leasing has led to new questions about what this type of lease mean for a landowner, a community, and the future.  As these leases may last for 30 years or more, it is important to understand what a utility-scale solar energy development looks like, along with the terms in a solar lease and the implications of signing.

Join OSU Extension Field Specialists Peggy Kirk Hall and Eric Romich on Monday, July 15th for a conversation on solar leasing.  Together, the presenters will address solar development trends, converting farmland to solar production, and key considerations to weigh before signing a solar lease.  Those interested may choose between one of two sessions:

  • Morning session: Madison County from 9:00am to noon at the Red Brick Tavern (1700 Cumberland Road/Route 40, London, Ohio).  Breakfast will be provided!
  • Afternoon session: Greene County from 2:00pm to 5:00pm at the Greene County Extension office (100 Fairground Road, Xenia, Ohio).

Each meeting will cover the same information.  Registration is required, but there is no cost to attend.  To register for the morning session in Madison County, email Griffith.483@osu.edu or call 740-852-0975.  To register for the afternoon session in Greene County, email Corboy.3@osu.edu or call 937-372-9971.

Click HERE to view the official flier.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about some of the documents and major considerations that will be discussed at the meeting, click HERE.  If you want to learn more about some common solar lease terms, click HERE.

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Here comes the sun: understanding important solar lease terms

Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

With all the rain and delayed planting that Ohio farmers have experienced this spring, signing a solar lease has been a very appealing prospect for many farmland owners.  While this may be the right decision for a farm, it is very important that the farmland owner understand exactly what he or she is signing.  Once an energy developer offers to pay you to enter into an agreement, and you sign that agreement, its terms will be legally binding.

In our recent blog post on solar leasing, we discussed some of the early documents that a farmland owner is likely to receive from an interested solar energy developer.  Further, we gave some general advice on what farmland owners should do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing his or her land.  One of our main suggestions was to take the time to fully understand what the farmland owner is getting into, and that is where this post comes in.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the important provisions of a solar lease that you as a farmland owner should look for in your solar lease, and understand what they mean.  A good solar lease will be very thorough, and include a lot of legalese.  Our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, will go more in depth than this blog post on the terms below and more.  It would also be a wise decision to consult with an attorney to ensure that your understanding of your solar lease reflects what the documents say.

For now, here are a few provisions to be on the lookout for in your solar lease:

The term.  How long does this lease last?  Most solar leases last for 20 to 30 years.  This is the time during which solar energy is being collected and sold.  Solar energy developers like this multi-decade duration because it allows them to use of the solar panels for their expected productive lifespan.

Thirty years is a long time.  Many careers are retirement-eligible after that period, and many farms will transition to the next generation in that amount of time.  This long of a term is not necessarily a bad thing.  It just means that a farmland owner should look back and look ahead.  Think back 30 years to 1989.  What all has changed on your farm?  What would it have looked like to not be able to use this ground for the past 30 years?  Now look ahead.  What do you expect your needs and those of your family to look like when this lease ends in 2049?  Only you can determine if not being able to use your land for that long is a good thing.

Phases.  How is this lease broken up?  We just explained that most solar leases will last for 20 to 30 years, but that clock usually starts ticking once construction has started on the project.  Solar energy developers will often reserve a year or two during which they can conduct their final feasibility studies and obtain necessary permits.  Some leases structure this pre-construction phase as merely an option phase, meaning that the energy developer will pay a small amount of rent to keep its option alive for that one or two-year period, but it does not necessarily have to commence construction.

Further, toward the end of the term, the energy developer may have written in an option to renew for another 5 or 10 years.  These renewals are often structured as a right that the energy developer may exercise merely by giving notice to the landowner.  Additionally, in the middle, if there is a natural disaster that puts the operation out of service for any period of time, a solar lease may stop the clock from ticking until the project is operational again and solar energy is being collected.

The important take-away for the phases is being able to know when each phase begins and ends.  When all of the different phases are combined, instead of just a 30-year lease, you could be looking at a 42-year agreement.  The only way to know how long it could last is to thoroughly read the entire lease.

A description of the premises.  Every solar lease will contain a description of the premises.  If an entire parcel is being leased, then this part is fairly easy.  However, if only a portion of the parcel is being lease, the farmland owner will want to make sure that the lease provides an adequate description so that the leased portion can be easily determined on the ground.  Often, this will include a survey and maps.  Knowing the boundaries is important because these leases are often exclusive, such that the farmland owner has little or no use or access of the leased land throughout the term.

Easements.  What rights are being granted to the solar energy developer?  Solar leases include a series of easements that give the solar energy developer the right to use your land.  Some of the common easements include a:

  • Construction easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property in order to construct the solar facility
  • Access easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property to reach the solar facility
  • Transmission easement: a right to install power lines, poles, and other equipment to transmit the energy produced by the solar panels to the grid
  • Solar easement: a right to unobstructed access to the sun without interference from structures or other improvements
  • Catch-all easement: a general right to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the project

Solar energy developers want their easements to be as broad and generous as possible in order to maximize their flexibility with the project.  This is not always to the advantage of the farmland owner.  If the lease is general enough to allow the solar energy developer to sub-lease to another entity such as a telecommunications company, the landowner will have a difficult time preventing the solar energy developer from doing so.  The farmland owner wants to make sure that the easements being granted are specific enough to not result in any surprises.

Landowner obligations and rights.  What does the lease require of you as the farmland owner?  Usually private solar energy developers include a non-interference provision, a quiet enjoyment provision, and an exclusivity provision.  All combined, these provisions are a promise by the farmland owner to not enter the solar facilities without prior permission, not interfere with the solar facilities, and not allow anyone else to do so for the duration of the term.

Further, solar leases often include a confidentiality provision that courts will enforce as legally binding.  These provisions allow the solar energy developer to control the flow of its proprietary information, and also prevent landowners from talking with one another about topics such as rent rates.  It is important to understand:

  • What information is protected
  • If there are any exceptions
  • When consent might be granted
  • If specific penalties apply
  • How long confidentiality lasts

The solar lease may also include a provision about farmland owner improvements.  These explain if and when the landowner needs to obtain prior approval of the solar energy developer in order to build a structure or plant something that may interfere with the solar project.

Property maintenance.  Who is going to mow?  Ohio landowners have a legal duty to cut noxious weeds, and a well drafted lease will cover which party to the lease bears responsibility for keeping the leased land clear.  Usually, the solar energy developer will take this responsibility, but it helps to have this in writing.

Cleanup terms.  Cleanup involves a lot of questions.  Does the solar lease require the solar energy developer to restore the land to its previous state?  If so, how is this measured?  Will all stakes and foundations be removed?  Will all improvements, like roadways, be removed?  How will the solar energy developer guarantee that it will be able to pay for this cleanup in 30 years?  Does it post a security, and if so, when?  A thorough lease will answer these questions.

Tax and conservation penalties.  Tax and conservation also involves a lot of questions because constructing and operating a solar facility will make the property ineligible for the full benefits of CAUV and most conservation programs.  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover real estate taxes?  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover the three-year lookback penalty for removing land from CAUV?  What will the solar energy developer do toward the end of the lease so that the land can be put back into production and made CAUV eligible again?  Similar questions must be asked for conservation programs.

Compensation.  It’s not that we saved the fun and best part for last.  We just wanted to make sure that compensation is not the first and only thing considered when deciding whether or not to enter into a solar lease.  While it certainly is important, some of the issues discussed above must be just as carefully understood.

The solar leases that we have seen involve cash rent that increases over time based upon a fixed escalator.  The escalator is a percent increase.  If the escalator increases at a rate greater than inflation, then the farmland owner will receive more bang for his or her land.  However, if the escalator increases at a rate lower than long-term inflation, then the solar energy developer will have to pay less over time.

Another point of compensation to consider is how damages will be calculated for harm to property and crops.  When the solar energy developer decides it is time to start construction, its option and easements grant it the right to begin construction even if there is a crop already in the ground.  This makes it in a farmland owner’s best interest to have this issue addressed up front.  These damages will often be calculated my multiplying the number of acres by the average county yield for that crop by that crop’s commodity future price with the Chicago Board of Trade for a given date.  This provides an objective calculation for damages.

Verbal promises.  A note of caution: if the solar energy developer makes you a verbal promise, ask for that promise to be included in the written lease.  If there is a conflict between what a representative of the solar energy developer tells you and what is written in the lease, the terms in the written lease are likely to prevail.

The activity we are seeing across Ohio right now with solar reminds us of the early stages of the recent wind and shale energy booms.  Some of the biggest regrets that we hear about are from landowners who thought they were getting a better deal than they actually did.  Reading through, understanding, and thinking about the lease is an essential part of calculating whether or not the lease being offered is actually a good deal for a farmland owner and his or her family.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to your team of professionals in this process.  Your attorney, tax professional, extension educator, and others can be a great resource.

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