COLUMBUS – Scheduled increases in the state’s energy-efficiency standards would be put on hold under a bill under consideration in the Ohio Senate.
Ohio established energy-saving standards in 2008, seeking to cut down on energy usage and pollution. The rules require utilities to get a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, and force factories to take steps to cut their electricity usage.
Each year, the standards increase, requiring power companies to use more renewable energy and manufacturers to take bigger steps to cut their demand for power.
Republicans, led by Green Township Sen. Bill Seitz, moved last year to loosen rules, saying they were causing Ohioans to pay higher prices for electricity. But months of debate caused the proposal to stall. Seitz even said he would entertain a bill that would abolish the energy-efficiency standards altogether, as Indiana recently did.
Now, Seitz says he’s hoping to fast-track a new bill that would simply freeze the standards at their current levels, canceling scheduled increases in renewable power usage or energy-saving steps.
A 21-member committee, including advocates on both sides of the issue, would spend 2014 and 2015 deliberating whether Ohio should leave its rules the same, loosen them or abolish them altogether. The committee would then make a recommendation to the General Assembly.
The standards deserve another look, Seitz said. Since 2008, utilities have increasingly turned to generating power with natural gas, which burns more cleanly than coal.
“I don’t think it’s proper to say that we’re going to resume the march up Old Smokey. We want a new commission, with new representatives and senators, to determine whether government mandates are appropriate at all in this area,” Seitz said. “Emerging consensus around the country is that these standards that were so popular when Al Gore was stirring up hysteria are maybe not such a good idea.”
But natural gas still doesn’t burn cleanly enough to justify eliminating the energy-efficiency mandates, said Sam Gomberg, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. It still produces enough carbon to speed climate change.
“Freezing everything where it is now basically stops Ohio’s progress toward a cleaner and more efficient electricity sector,” Gomberg said.
Even keeping the standards at their current levels could hurt renewable-energy businesses, which employ as many as 25,000 Ohioans, said Zach Roberts, director of energy-security group Operation Free Ohio.
With a freeze in standards, “It’s incredibly difficult (for businesses) to think years out in terms of investing in new projects, especially when they don’t know what the energy-efficiency standards are going to be for their large industrial customers,” Roberts said.
But an extra year at 2014 levels shouldn’t hurt businesses: “Presumably, what they’ve built to date accommodates the demand,” he said.
At the core in the debate over the standards is a simple, yet controversial question: Does energy efficiency save money for electricity users, or is it actually more expensive than the status quo?
Several Republicans, along with companies such as the Akron-based utility First Energy, have argued that Ohio’s energy-savings requirements drive up rates for everyday power users. Utilities, they say, must pay for expensive energy-efficient projects to follow the rules.
That can’t be true, according to consumer advocates, environmentalists, clean energy companies and some businesses. Ohio’s rules require utilities to show they are saving consumers money through reduced electricity needs – more money than they’ll spend on energy-efficiency projects.
Putting the standards on hold for further assessment would allow Ohio to get a final answer to that debate, said Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, who sponsored the new bill.
“We know how much money has been paid by Ohioans for energy efficiency. We have no certainty on the benefits they have recouped from their payments,” Balderson told a Senate committee Wednesday. “It is essential that we act to protect all Ohioans’ electricity bills from continuing to rise and therefore maintain the status quo while we carefully review the best way to move forward.”
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