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Published: Friday, 2/18/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

FirstEnergy chided for missing solar benchmarks


Toledo councliman Joe McNamara insists FirstEnergy's reluctance to embrace solar is costing Toledo jobs. Toledo councliman Joe McNamara insists FirstEnergy's reluctance to embrace solar is costing Toledo jobs.
Toledo needs FirstEnergy Corp. to get serious about solar energy, according to a city councilman who Thursday called for a public rebuke of the utility for its failure to meet state-required investment benchmarks.

Councilman Joe McNamara told reporters FirstEnergy's reluctance to embrace solar is costing Toledo jobs, a situation he said is deplorable for a utility making nearly $1 billion in profit.

FirstEnergy is effectively snubbing its nose at Toledo by failing to meet the minimal requirements established in 2008 by a new state law requiring greater energy diversification, he said.

The law requires all utilities doing business in Ohio to obtain at least 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. At least one-half of 1 percent of that must eventually come from the sun, with annual benchmarks between now and 2025 intended to phase in the commitment.

FirstEnergy recently asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for a waiver from the utility's requirement to buy or produce more solar energy for the second consecutive year since the program took effect. The utility said Ohio did not have enough solar projects in either 2009 or 2010 for FirstEnergy to get the credits it needed to comply with the state law.

The law credits utilities for buying into projects as investors or developing solar projects on their own, both intended to stimulate growth in that energy sector.

FirstEnergy spokesman Ellen Raines said the utility prefers to invest in projects rather than develop them. "We don't believe we have the expertise to be a solar developer," she said.

That doesn't sit well with Mr. McNamara. "FirstEnergy's pitiful performance in meeting this requirement is a direct result of its lack of direct investment in solar energy," he said.

The councilman said his concerns go deeper than another waiver. On Sept. 29, a former FirstEnergy official told a Toledo audience the economics of solar power "are not viable in the Toledo area" and that Toledo Edison was not in the "solar energy game," Mr. McNamara said.

He said those comments were made by Trent Smith, former regional president of Toledo Edison, a FirstEnergy subsidiary, in a presentation to the Toledo Energy Policy Committee.

Mr. McNamara noted that American Electric Power entered a long-term contract with a company whose project used solar panels like these from First Solar LLC. Mr. McNamara noted that American Electric Power entered a long-term contract with a company whose project used solar panels like these from First Solar LLC.
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Mr. McNamara noted that American Electric Power last year entered into a long-term contract with a company that built a 10-megawatt solar field about a 90-minute drive south of Toledo, a project that used panels manufactured by Perrysburg's First Solar LLC.

"Basically, an electric company that does not even serve the Toledo area has done more to create jobs in Toledo than our very own Toledo Edison," Mr. McNamara said.

FirstEnergy is one of the nation's largest utilities. The councilman said it made $990 million profit in 2009.

Toledo is one of the nation's poorest cities with about one of every four people living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But with the University of Toledo becoming more of a research hub for solar and companies such as First Solar LLC and Xunlight becoming bigger players in the global market, the city has gained recognition from publications such as The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek as an unlikely competitor with Silicon Valley for solar research and manufacturing.

It needs FirstEnergy to at least live up to its obligation, Mr. McNamara said.

"When a company made almost a billion-dollar profit, I find it extremely hard to believe that it lacks the capital to achieve a modest investment in solar energy that is required by state law," he said. "FirstEnergy should be a good community player and invest in Toledo jobs."

FirstEnergy Wednesday reported a 2010 profit of $760 million on revenues of $13.34 billion.

Ms. Raines said FirstEnergy and its local subsidiary have strong reputations as community partners. "You will find Toledo Edison's name attached to almost every project in the city," she said. "I can only tell you the facts are we have been a very active community partner."

Mr. McNamara asked FirstEnergy to attend a hearing of the council's utilities and public service commission at One Government Center scheduled for 4 p.m. Feb. 28.

"While the FirstEnergy subsidiaries legally have to answer to the [Public Utilities Commission of Ohio] for their failure to invest in solar, they ultimately have to answer to the communities to whom they serve," he said.

FirstEnergy will weigh the pros and cons of the invitation before it decides "if it's appropriate for us to be there," Ms. Raines said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.

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