Map of Ohio solar farms and solar workers

Ohio’s non-residential solar industry – also known as utility-scale solar energy – is entering into a boomtime. Across the state’s vast farmlands massive solar panel farms are coming online, under construction or in a planning phase, with several of these projects a few miles west and southwest of I-270.

According to the Ohio Power Siting Board (a state office), just three solar farms are currently operational, but 11 are under construction and 22 are in a planning phase.

The Highland Solar Farm in southern Ohio, for example, will be a 300-megawatt facility built on 3,500 acres and expected to produce enough clean energy to power over 49,200 homes. What’s more, Ohio may someday be home to the nation’s largest solar panel farm if Microsoft’s Bill Gates – one of Ohio’s biggest land owners – decides to build it in Ohio.

Solar power on a mass scale is the clean energy dream environmentalists and progressives have been striving for. More good news is Ohio’s solar power capacity is projected to overtake the state’s remaining coal-fired electricity by the end of this decade.

But one of Ohio’s largest labor unions is raising an alarm about these burgeoning solar panel farms.

The Ohio Laborers’ District Council, with its headquarters in Westerville and 16,000 members strong, says some out-of-state owners of these solar farms – and the temp agencies they hired to bring in construction workers – are being built by non-union, temporary, and mostly immigrant construction workers who are being paid substandard wages. They are also being used to take advantage of tax abatements. 

Not far past Hilliard near London (Madison County), roughly 200 constructions workers are building Big Solar Plain Project. California-based SOLV Energy is the design company tasked to build this solar panel farm, and the owner and operator of the project is Leeward Renewable Energy of Texas. The project will occupy 1,200 acres and eventually be connected to a FirstEnergy Corp. substation – which of course is the Ohio utility company that bribed now-former Ohio House Speaker Rep. Larry Householder to save two of its nuclear power plants.

Randy McGuire, spokesperson for Ohio Laborers’ District Council (OHLDC), says his union is fighting to ensure that Ohio solar construction jobs are well paid with benefits. OHLDC recently held a protest near the Big Solar Plain Project to raise awareness.

“SOLV Energy has come in and tried to use local labor because they have to if they want these tax abatements. Millions of dollars’ worth,” said McGuire. “There’s a pilot program, and if they use 80 percent of Ohio workers, they get these tax abatements.”

He adds that a lot of times if the owners of these solar farms cannot secure the tax abatement, they won’t build it. “It’s not feasible for them moneywise,” he said.

Again, SOLV Energy is the construction company hired by Leeward Renewable Energy to build the Big Solar Plain project. McGuire says Leeward and SOLV don’t want to pay standard construction worker wages ($34 per hour). They only want to pay $18 to $20 per hour and have had hard time bringing in workers. Thus, they can’t meet the 80 percent Ohio worker threshold.

So, SOLV has turned to temp agencies to find workers, says McGuire.

“These temp agencies will charge SOLV so much money to get them employees. Well, 9 out of 10 times they are not local people. They are bringing in people from all over, and we sit there and right down license plates, and they are not from Ohio,” he says. “They are from everywhere. Latino and Haitian workers, for instance. During the summer they camp out in their cars. In the wintertime they’ll be about 15 of them in one hotel room. They’re like a bunch of transient workers.”

McGuire says the temp agencies have recruiters telling these construction worker “gypsies” they need to get an Ohio drivers’ license.

“They are using their hotel or bank for their Ohio address,” he said. “And that’s how they are getting around the 80 percent (state-mandated threshold for a tax abatement).”

McGuire wants to make it clear the OHLDC is not anti-solar. Ohio ranks 25th nationwide in solar power generation capacity, with around 107,207 Ohio homes powered by solar energy and .0091 percent of the state’s electricity generated by solar power.

“It’s here, it’s going to happen, and we want to embrace it,” he said. “What we are wanting to do is give these construction workers the pay they deserve. They don’t need to be making $18 to $20 an hour. These companies don’t deserve the tax abatements if they are not meeting the rules and requirements to get them. That’s stealing from Ohio taxpayers.”

McGuire says the OHLDC has alerted the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to what’s going on.

There are three large solar panel farms are under construction in Madison County (immediately west of Franklin County). Two of them are union and the Big Solar Project is not.

“We met with Madison County commissioners, and they are very happy with the two that are working union. And very upset with the one working non-union. The ones working union are doing the job correctly. County engineers are happy with these projects. The project at Big Plain, they are not happy with,” said McGuire.