Is there anything hopeful to say about the lousy new law that is freezing Ohio’s clean-energy mandates? Only that it could have been even worse — and that Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly still have a chance to start to reverse the damage they’ve done.
Make no mistake: The law is plenty bad. The governor and the Republican-dominated legislature have paused for two years the state’s successful five-year-old standards for alternative energy and energy efficiency. Ohio is the only state that has taken such a step backward.
Before they were delayed, the mandates required Ohio utilities to work toward making 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable (solar, wind) and advanced (nuclear, “clean” coal) energy sources, and adopting efficiency measures aimed at cutting energy use by 22 percent statewide, both by 2025. Half of the renewable energy was to have been generated in Ohio, but the new law removes that provision.
Columbus’ weakening of the standards will cost Ohio jobs and investment in fast-growing alternative energy industries, now and for years to come. It likely will raise, not lower, your electric bill. It will make the air we breathe dirtier and will waste energy.
Still, all is not lost. Some of the Statehouse’s most fearsome old-energy dinosaurs wanted to repeal the mandates outright. Mr. Kasich’s last-minute intervention with his fellow Republicans in the legislature persuaded them to settle for the freeze instead.
So the General Assembly will spend the next two years reviewing the standards and deciding what to do next. There’s an opportunity for a positive outcome, if legislators approach that task with thoughtfulness, honesty, courage, and accountability.
Of course, when you have to count on Ohio lawmakers to display these virtues, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It might seem easy for them to bide their time and then merely reinstate the standards in two years — or worse, weaken the mandates further, or worst, eliminate them.
But even if Mr. Kasich wins re-election this year, the energy debate won’t be dictated — as the passage of Senate Bill 310 was — by the preferences of the Koch brothers, shortsighted Ohio utilities, large industrial power users, and Big Coal. It also will include some influential folks who don’t contribute to Statehouse Republicans’ campaigns.
The week before Governor Kasich signed SB 310, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. These new rules will especially affect Ohio, which generates more than two-thirds of its electricity from coal, compared with about two-fifths nationwide.
These plants account for 40 percent of all carbon pollution; they represent the largest contributor to climate change. The U.S. EPA is holding public hearings on the clean-power plan across the country this week.
The EPA plan seeks to cut power plants’ carbon emissions nationwide by 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. The proposal sets a target for every state — the goal for Ohio is a 28-percent reduction — but allows each state to figure out for itself how to meet it.
The rule describes four building blocks for states to use in developing their compliance plans: making coal-fired plants more efficient, relying more on natural gas to generate electricity, investing more in renewable and nuclear energy, and improving energy efficiency.
Ohio’s fracking boom should permit the state to make greater use of gas. But SB 310 limits the state’s ability to include the renewable and efficiency elements in its compliance plan, especially if the uncertainty the law is creating causes solar and wind energy producers to flee Ohio.
And if state lawmakers continue to throw these two building blocks away, Ohio’s compliance plan will become harder to achieve and costlier to consumers. It will also be more difficult for Ohio to join other states in forming regional energy coalitions and programs.
The American Wind Energy Association estimates that excluding renewable energy would inflate the cost of Ohio’s EPA compliance plan by $80 million to $360 million a year, depending on changes in natural-gas prices. That could cost the typical Ohio consumer as much as another $26.70 a year in utility expenses.
“The local benefits [of a balanced plan] trump ideological opposition,” Tom Vinson, the vice president of federal regulatory affairs for the wind-energy trade group, told me last week. “The EPA rule should cause states that might want to follow Ohio in relaxing their renewable standards to step back and reconsider.”
Mr. Vinson cites a U.S. Department of Energy finding that the cost of producing wind energy has dropped by 43 percent in the past four years. Ohio’s largest wind project, the Blue Creek farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties, is designed to power as many as 76,000 homes a year. It sells power to several of the state’s biggest utilities and Ohio State University.
At the same time, a new project at the Toledo Zoo uses a solar array to generate nearly one-third of the zoo’s electricity. The U.S. Defense Department is pursuing clean-energy and energy-efficiency initiatives in our state, including expansion of a solar installation at the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing facility at Toledo Express Airport.
Such projects attract jobs and private investment, while they save money, enhance national energy security, and improve our environment. But don’t look for a lot of similarly innovative new efforts in Ohio while SB 310 remains in effect.
Mr. Vinson notes that if Ohio does not submit a proposal to comply with the federal clean-power plan that is “quantifiable, verifiable, and enforceable” by 2016 — when the freeze on the state’s clean-energy standards is set to expire — the feds can impose their own program. But it shouldn’t come to that. Ohio needs to invest more in, not to run away from, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The General Assembly made a big mistake when it passed Senate Bill 310; Governor Kasich made an equally big mistake in signing it. Now they need to clean up the mess they’ve created.
As they study what they will do, looking out for the interests of the Ohioans they were elected to represent — ahead of the folks who bankroll their campaigns — would offer a good guiding principle.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.