Commentary: A test for pols: Keep or gut Ohio’s clean-energy law?

Source: BY DAVID KUSHMA, TOLEDO BLADE EDITOR • Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Would you vote for a politician who works to raise your electric bills, kill jobs, discourage economic growth and investment, waste energy, and degrade the air you breathe?

Ohioans may get the chance to cast such votes, or do the opposite, this year. That will depend on whether the Republican-controlled General Assembly passes a bill gutting the state law that sets sensible, effective standards for clean energy and energy efficiency. A Senate vote could come this week.

How lawmakers vote on Senate Bill 310 may offer a useful reminder before the November election of whom they really work for: the constituents who put them in office, or the special-interest groups — in this instance electric utilities, fossil-fuel producers, and big industrial power users — that bankroll their campaigns.

“It would seem crazy that they would want this to happen in an election year,” says Dayna Baird Payne, a lobbyist in Columbus for the wind power industry and a supporter of the current energy standards. “This [standards] law is saving customers money. It’s achieving its goals of economic development and energy diversity. It’s cost-efficient.”

The law under attack in the Statehouse requires Ohio utilities to generate 25 percent of their electricity sales from nontraditional energy sources by 2025. Half that amount must come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power, and the other half from advanced-energy sources, such as nuclear power, fuel cells, and clean coal.

Half of the renewable energy must be generated in Ohio — a big incentive for industrial development and job creation. If SB 310 becomes law, warns Jason Slattery, director of solar at the Walbridge-based contractor Rudolph/​Libbe, “it will essentially kill solar in this state.”

Under the clean-energy law, which took effect five years ago, utilities also must adopt energy-efficiency measures designed to reduce electricity use by 22 percent in Ohio by 2025. A follow-up measure approved by lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich two years ago affirmed and in some ways strengthened the earlier law.

The clean-energy law has worked: Despite dire predictions that it would distort Ohio energy markets and drive up costs for consumers, the state’s largest utilities acknowledge that the energy-efficiency programs required by the law are saving their customers more than $4 billion over a decade.

More than 400 advanced-energy companies in Ohio employ more than 25,000 workers. The law has brought more than $1.2 billion in capital spending to the state; five times as much investment could be lost if the renewable standards are rolled back.

A rotor is installed on a wind turbine in Van Wert County, a site with large wind-energy farms in northwest Ohio.
A rotor is installed on a wind turbine in Van Wert County, a site with large wind-energy farms in northwest Ohio.

Northwest Ohio has 50 companies in the solar industry, along with two huge wind farms in Van Wert, Paulding, and Putnam counties. Ohio has 62 companies that supply parts to the wind energy industry, the largest number in the country.

These enterprises pay local property taxes. Renewable-energy developers make lease payments to farmers and other landowners.

Ohio is one of 29 states that have enacted renewable-energy standards, and one of 20 states with energy-efficiency standards. Several other states, notably Colorado, have tougher requirements. Ohio’s law can be overly generous in its definition of advanced-energy investments at nuclear plants and “clean” coal facilities.

Still, some Ohio utilities, notably Akron-based FirstEnergy, chafe at the regulation the law imposes on them. So do some companies that consume a lot of power — although other major Ohio manufacturers and energy companies, including Owens Corning, support keeping the clean-energy law.

Then there are the billionaire Koch brothers, who are backing a nationwide campaign to roll back renewable-energy standards in the states that maintain them, likening the benchmarks to — horrors — Obamacare. The Kochs have major investments in fossil-fuel companies, and Ohio remains one of the biggest consumers of coal, relying on it to generate more than two-thirds of our electricity (nationally, coal accounts for about 40 percent).

Coal producers look on upstart wind and solar companies as increasingly strong competitors, especially as reports of climate change linked to carbon emissions from power plants add urgency to the need to reduce our reliance on coal. The producers, and utilities that work with them, are pushing back.

“They don’t want us playing in their backyard,” says Dennis Bollinger, president of Energy Developments Inc., which converts landfill gas to energy; one of its three Ohio plants is in Ottawa County. “They feel threatened by us.”

Ms. Payne told me that the Koch brothers are “not active, overtly or behind the scenes,” in influencing the Ohio bill. But SB 310 resembles model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded association of conservative state lawmakers. Many members of Ohio’s General Assembly — including some who are pushing hardest for the standards-wrecking bill — belong to ALEC.

SB 310 doesn’t repeal Ohio’s energy standards, but it might as well. It would freeze the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards at their current, incomplete levels, and eliminate the alternative-energy mandate. Lawmakers would have to vote again to restore the standards — or, more likely, replace them with much weaker ones.

At an energy summit he convened two years ago, Governor Kasich endorsed an “all of the above” energy policy for Ohio, including alternative energy. He said in his 2012 State of the State address that “we need to embrace renewables.”

The governor looked askance at a legislative effort to repeal the energy standards during a lame-duck session after the 2012 election. He hasn’t taken a formal position on the current rollback measure, although the issue is sure to emerge during his re-election campaign this year — and likely beyond, if he runs for president in 2016.

A poll conducted last month for advanced-energy companies found that nearly three out of four Ohio voters like the clean-energy law as it is. An even higher percentage of voters back the law’s efficiency mandates. Politicians who seek new terms ignore these numbers at their peril.

Ms. Payne says advocates of alternative energy are willing to negotiate with business on reasonable “consensus” changes to the clean-energy law. But the first thing lawmakers need to do is abandon their misguided effort to destroy the law. You might want to let your state senator and representative know that.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.