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Ohio House passes green energy freeze

Columbus – A controversial bill moving swiftly through the GOP-controlled General Assembly would put a hold on green energy standards and set the stage for dismantling an energy law that took effect just five years ago.

After more than an hour of passionate debate, the Ohio House voted Wednesday 53-38 in favor of Senate Bill 310, which calls for freezing renewable energy benchmarks and energy conservation measures for the next two years. The vote fell largely along partisan lines with Democrats opposing the bill and Republicans supporting it. State Rep. Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, was among a handful of Republicans to vote no.

The Ohio Senate then quickly voted 21-11 in favor of the House changes. State Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, opposed the bill and the House changes.

A law passed in 2008 during the Strickland administration requires utilities to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and assist customers in reducing energy usage by 22 percent by 2025. The law proscribes benchmarks to hit between now and 2025.

Senate Bill 310 would freeze those requirements at current levels for two years while a legislative committee studies the issues. It would also eliminate a requirement that utilities obtain half of their renewable energy from in-state sources.

Ted Ford, president and chief executive of Ohio Advanced Energy Economy, said in a written statement: “Ohio is poised to become the first state in the nation to move backwards on renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. This despite the fact that data from public filings of utility companies themselves show that these standards are saving money for customers.”

“The two-year freeze clearly sends a message to investors that this market is uncertain,” said Dayna Baird, lobbyist for the American Wind Association. She added that the mandate that 50 percent of renewable energy come from Ohio has been driving investment in wind farms in the state. Tossing out the mandate before the study group gets underway is “illogical,” she said.

The bill has divided business groups. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the NFIB Ohio are behind it but opponents include the Ohio Manufacturers Association, Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, AARP Ohio, Honda of America and environmental groups. Utility companies did not testify on the bill in the House or Senate.

Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturer’s Association, issued a letter to House members urging a no vote. “The inevitable outcome…will be higher electricity costs for business and residential customers,” he said.

Proponents of the freeze say adhering to the benchmarks will lead to rate spikes. They also say conditions have changed since the standards were put in place. Natural gas prices have gone down and the state has seen new shale oil and natural gas discoveries.

State Rep. Peter Stautberg, R-Anderson Twp., said the mandates are “simply not achievable or sustainable” and that Ohioans don’t need anyone to tell them that turning off the lights when they leave a room will cut their energy usage.

Opponents, which include environmental groups, clean energy business interests and some manufacturers, say the renewable energy and conservation benchmarks set in the 2008 law have already saved utility customers more than $1 billion on their bills, slashed pollution and avoided the need for costly power plant construction.

State Rep. Mike Foley, D-Cleveland, and other Democrats scolded supporters of the bill, saying that abandoning renewable energy standards is environmentally irresponsible given the evidence of climate change. “This is a legacy vote. It’s a vote that we’ll all be judged on for years to come,” Foley said.

Republicans in the Ohio Senate initially wanted to scrap the renewable energy standards entirely.

Backers of the Buckeye Wind Farm in Champaign County have warned that the move to put the brakes on renewable energy requirements will chill green energy investment in Ohio and make it tougher to sell wind power in Ohio.

Seventy-percent of Ohio’s electricity is generated using coal, 16 percent comes from natural gas and 12 percent is from nuclear generation. Very little is generated from hydroelectric, solar and wind power.