SB 310 — an Unprecedented Step Backwards for Ohio

On Wednesday, the Ohio Legislature approved a bill to freeze and dismantle the state’s clean energy provisions, making Ohio the first state to roll back its energy conservation and renewable energy standards. A vote on the House floor took place Wednesday, May 28; two weeks after the Ohio Senate passed the corporate polluter giveaways, known as Senate Bill 310. Governor Kasich has indicated that he will sign the legislation on Thursday, May 29.

In 2008, Governor Ted Strickland signed bipartisan clean energy legislation into Ohio law. At the time, it garnered only a single vote of opposition in the Ohio General Assembly. Yet, state lawmakers under pressure from FirstEnergy, and a national organization of major corporations known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have frozen Ohio’s clean energy progress in its tracks.

ALEC members include several of the nation’s biggest coal, oil, gas, and utility companies like American Electric Power, Duke Energy, and ExxonMobil. The group has repeatedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to dismantle cost-saving standards in Ohio, as well as in traditionally conservative states like Kansas and North Carolina. For ALEC-board member State Senator Bill Seitz of Cincinnati and Akron-based FirstEnergy, the nation’s largest investor-owned utility, the third time has proven a charm. Throughout the coverage of the bill, Ecowatch was the only Ohio-based media outlet that provided mention or information about ALEC.

The law has raised vocal opposition from environmental advocates, as well as the NAACP, Ohio veterans, consumer advocates, and manufacturers. Yet, Senator Seitz has mused that the 2008 law is a ‘Bataan Death March’ conducted by clean energy interests. These disrespectful comments came during testimony from Sierra Club’s Dan Sawmiller, a combat veteran who served in Iraq. Such remarks from the chair of Ohio’s Senate Public Utilities Committee make it critical the public understands what clean energy standards really dictate.

The 2008 law required utilities, such as FirstEnergy, to implement efficiencies to cut electricity consumption, especially during peak daily electricity demand, which typically occurs at about 5:30pm. This measure, paid by a rider billed to consumers, reduces high-end stress on the electric grid and fossil fuel-burning power plants, reduces air, water, and carbon pollution, and reduces prices for consumers. Naturally, if top-line demand is reduced, prices drop. Former Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Senior Energy Policy Advisor Wilson Gonzalez has testified that consumers save from $1.70 to $3.90 for every dollar they pay on their bill rider.

The law also requires utilities to install renewable generation from wind and solar sources. General Electric recently produced a report for PJM Interconnection, the company overseeing Ohio’s entire electrical grid, stating that PJM’s regional market can reliably handle as much as 30 percent renewable energy while lowering costs for customers.

But lower prices and savings for Ohioans are direct revenue losses for utility monopolies, and FirstEnergy CEO Tony Alexander, who made $23 million in 2013, doesn’t get paid to lose. That is why FirstEnergy has made dismantling the standards their legislative priority since 2012.

A derisive post from the Facebook page of Matt Brakey, of Brakey Energy and the Industrial Energy Users

Alongside a hastily assembled group of golf-playing white men called the Industrial Energy Users, utilities have taken to using their financial and political clout to propel SB 310 through the legislature. With the help of corporate allies in Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, they have drowned out arguments to protect Ohioans’ clean energy savings. Such messaging undermines the great work by small-business advocates- and local best actors on energy efficiency- Council for Small Enterprise (or COSE).

Ohio Senate President Keith Faber quoted in the Columbus Dispatch:

“What we want to do as a legislature is put procedures in place that are based on evidence and science, not based on ideas that happened back when we thought Solyndra was going to be a good investment for the federal government.”

Denying science and the threats of increasingly volatile climate is nothing new for Ohio Republicans, but not even the Solyndra comparison holds water. Iberdola’s Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding Counties was the largest investment in Ohio in 2011 at $600 million. This wind farm currently sells The Ohio State University a quarter of its Columbus campus’ energy needs, agreed to in a contract and saves the university $1 million a year, for 20 years. Ohio wind farms pay $3.6m per year in property taxes, and $2.5m per year in land lease payments to landowners.

“We’ve spent $1.1 billion since 2009 on energy efficiency. … I’m not quite sure what we’ve gotten out of it,” Faber said.

Answer: Energy resources at less than $0.01/kwh (vs. market rate of $.06-.11/kwh). For a local example, the Cleveland Orchestra’s facility manager testified to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that they cut their utility bill in half through FirstEnergy’s efficiency program.

Cost of Saved Energy Results by State chart via LBNL

Read more at cleantechnica.com

Cutting demand through energy efficiency and real-time demand response (i.e. ‘turn off that light’) programs are far and away the cheapest and cleanest ways to make additional energy resources available. When one considers the health benefits of clean energy, such as lowering the incidence of asthma and emissions-related health issues, the 2008 standards are not nearly ambitious enough.

Zach Roberts, Ohio director for Operation Free, a veterans’ group working to address climate change and energy policy has characterized the rollback efforts as a “dramatic and draconian” attack on clean energy. Veterans like Roberts and Sawmiller certainly recognize the consequences of energy policy and conflict. They are also realists who recognize the immense threats of an increasingly volatile climate.

Ohio’s ever-hedging Governor Kasich, in a dubious call for moderation, pared down original legislation to a ‘temporary freeze,’ but has still signed on to provisions that would dismantle Ohio’s clean energy industries. Ohio is the first and only state to roll back its clean energy standards.

Unfortunately, FirstEnergy and ALEC have deep pockets. Campaign contributions tell a story of Northeast Ohio Democrats paid to collaborate with a pro-polluter agenda. Both Senator Shirley Smith and Representative Sandra Williams, running for Smith’s senate seat, have voted for SB 310. Each of them point to their well-intended amendments to protect low-income people, but neither will preserve customers’ on-bill savings, which are derived from energy conservation and renewables. Cleveland’s majority-black east side children suffer from asthma at a rate of nearly 1 in 4, and will actually see a deterioration of local air quality, and steady increase in ozone action days.

Given the true popularity of clean energy and the accompanying savings, it is clear that Ohio is facing a critical test of its democratic values against the power of corporate fossil fuel interests. On Monday, the US EPA is releasing rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants. Naturally, the Ohio legislature is mobilizing to opt the state out of reducing Ohio’s emissions.

Due to its high proportion of coal in its energy portfolio, the state of Ohio is the 4th highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation. Where more immediate public health is concerned, Ohio is the 2nd highest emitter of mercury in the nation, and Lake Erie the most mercury-polluted of the Great Lakes. (That hasn’t stopped Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman from voting to dismantle standards to reduce mercury pollution.)

Ohio needs to keep expanding affordable clean energy in Ohio, to keep reducing toxic air emissions and carbon pollution, and to preserve its clean energy workforce that stands 30,000-strong. Through the mass organizing efforts of its labor unions and local communities in 2011, Ohio was able to reject SB 5 and the right-to-work for lower wages. Our state now faces a test of accepting global scientific consensus, bucking its polluter monopolies, and securing the public the clean air, clean water, and monthly savings they deserve. If we fail to act now we will be failing our future generations’ health and welfare

By Akshai Singh

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