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Published: Tuesday, 8/24/2010

Green realities

PRESIDENT Obama, during a visit to Ohio last week, overstated Toledo's progress in developing local alternative-energy industries. Imagine: a politician engaging in hyperbole.

The President's critics used his exaggerations as another opportunity to play "gotcha." His supporters glossed over or excused the misstatements. Neither response was adequate.

Instead, northwest Ohio should use Mr. Obama's remarks as an agenda for action. Ohio regulators, and elected officials of both parties, might ask what they can do to help reality catch up with the President's green rhetoric.

In his trip to Columbus, the President noted that the Toledo area "is becoming a leader" in clean-energy technology. That's true: Local private entrepreneurs are building and maintaining productive partnerships with public colleges and universities to advance solar-power research and development. The goal is to create spinoff companies that will attract investment, create jobs, and add tax revenue to the battered local economy.

Companies in the region - First Solar, Xunlight Corp., Willard & Kelsey Solar Group - are building solar panels and pursuing related technologies that are creating good jobs here, as Mr. Obama observed. Building new applications on northwest Ohio's extensive base in advanced manufacturing is smart policy that provides a model for other industries to emulate.

The problem is that Ohio, and especially Toledo, are losing the lead in solar power that they took several years ago. Of the 50 or so solar manufacturing projects funded by the President's stimulus package, few are in Ohio.

Other states, whose economies are in no better shape than Ohio's, are leapfrogging ahead in recruiting solar companies and encouraging creation of thousands of solar jobs. They are offering solar manufacturers more-generous incentives and more-attractive markets for their products.

As the state stares down a potential $8 billion budget deficit next year, it can't afford to give away the store to solar companies or anyone else. But state officials can and should review current policies to determine whether they are creating unnecessary obstacles to continued growth of alternative-energy industries in Ohio.

This month, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved a plan by FirstEnergy Corp. to convert a coal-fired plant in eastern Ohio to one of the nation's largest biomass facilities. The PUCO certified the plant as a renewable-energy facility, although the utility was vague about such things as where it will get the wood it plans to burn to power the biomass operation.

Environmental groups and consumer advocates note that FirstEnergy is getting special credits from the state, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to convert and run the plant. That subsidy, they argue credibly, gives FirstEnergy an unfair advantage in competing with the state's producers of solar and wind power for alternative-energy customers.

This isn't the only example of public policy that could thwart the growth of green industries that officials say they want to promote. State law mandates that by 2025, one-eighth of electricity sold in Ohio will have to come from clean-energy and renewable sources, encouraging solar and wind-power development. The state is making grants and loans in the region to alternative-energy endeavors.

Yet other state taxing and spending strategies continue to favor old-line but politically powerful industries such as coal. Similarly, the federal government continues to subsidize greatly the indirect costs of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, as well as nuclear power, while other countries vastly outspend the United States on investments in clean energy.

In his comments during his Ohio visit, Mr. Obama cited Toledo's achievements in "wind turbines [and] advanced battery manufacturing." He got ahead of himself: Turbines and fuel-cell batteries, and many of the components needed to supply their production, aren't made locally.

But the University of Toledo is pursuing research in these areas, which are logical outgrowths of the region's solar industry. They also would be fertile fields for local manufacturers, government, and investors to explore.

Mr. Obama is correct that creating and nurturing alternative-energy companies makes economic as well as environmental sense. Instead of assailing the President for extolling local green-energy developments that haven't occurred yet, northwest Ohio might ask: Why the delay?



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