Still reeling from what they consider a devastating one-two punch from Gov. John Kasich six weeks ago, Ohio clean-energy advocates are getting back on their feet, shaking off the shock of two bills being signed into law, and trying to figure out how they can avoid a knockout.
They admit it won’t be easy.
But lobbyists such as Terrence O’Donnell, a Columbus attorney from the global law firm of Dickinson Wright, said it’s doable if he and other advocates find the right balance of political diplomacy.
They want to ensure Ohio’s new two-year freeze on renewable energy mandates for utilities becomes just that – a timeout from requirements set forth under a 2008 law and not a backdoor strategy to repeal it after this fall’s gubernatorial election.
“One of the messages we want to convey is we continue to engage,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
He said the composition, scope, and mission of a legislative committee being formed to examine the continued need for such requirements is crucial to Ohio’s energy future – especially that of northwest Ohio, which had been depending on expanded solar energy, wind power, biomass, and other clean energy sectors for jobs and economic growth.
“We expect and hope for a thorough and robust study process,” he said.
Ohio is one of 29 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have renewable energy portfolio standards.
Those are laws that require utilities doing business within their boundaries to gradually invest in or develop more renewable energy. Ohio’s law, passed by near-unanimous consent of the Ohio General Assembly in 2008, requires utilities to reach a point in 2025 in which at least 12.5 percent of their electricity comes from clean energy.
That law remains on the books even in the aftermath of Governor Kasich’s controversial decision to sign Senate Bill 310 on June 13.
The bill imposes a two-year freeze on those requirements and a rollback on ones that mandated greater efforts in energy conservation.
Utilities, led by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., claimed the mandates were too difficult, even though U.S. Department of Energy data show Ohio has some of the softer requirements. Those for and against such mandates differ over whether more clean-energy programs would raise or lower monthly electric bills.
“We don’t agree renewables are pushing up costs in Ohio,” said Christy Omohundro, the American Wind Energy Association’s eastern state policy director.
Tom Vinson, that group’s vice president of federal regulatory affairs, said wind energy has become one of America’s fastest-growing forms of power because its costs have come down 43 percent over the past four years. Its growth was boosted largely by states with renewable energy mandates.
“The perception that renewable energy drives up prices is an outdated viewpoint,” Mr. Vinson said.
FirstEnergy contends it did customers a favor, though, by getting Senate Bill 310 passed and signed into law.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) is among the clean-energy advocates who believe Mr. Kasich’s actions are a step backward.
She said the governor has made it more difficult for entrepreneurs such as the late Harold McMaster, a Toledo pioneer in the development of thin-film solar modules, to emerge.
“Unfortunately, it cedes the future to other states. I was very sad to see Ohio had taken that route,” Miss Kaptur said. “I worry about the brand it will give our region.”
The wind industry considers House Bill 483 worse than the freeze because it requires giant turbines to be set back off roads and away from houses and other structures at much greater distances.
The net effect is it will be much harder to site the skyward machines.
If House Bill 483 had been in effect three years ago, Ohio would not have received its single biggest investment of 2011: the $600 million Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties.
Dan Litchfield, a Chicago business developer for Iberdrola Renewables, an international company in Spain that did that project, has said only 12 of the 152 wind turbines would have been allowed.
He said the freeze and the new setback requirements will give his company second thoughts about investing in Ohio.
Last Tuesday, on a large chunk of land adjacent to the north side of the Toledo Zoo’s main parking lot off Anthony Wayne Trail, one of the Toledo area’s oldest businesses, Rudolph/Libbe, was congratulated for a project that put a former eyesore into productive use.
The company installed 28,500 solar panels on 22 acres that had been dormant because the land was contaminated by past industrial practices. The 2.1 megawatts generated by those panels are expected to produce 30 percent of the zoo’s electricity, making it one of northwest Ohio’s largest solar arrays.
But it may be one of the last projects of its kind in metro Toledo or even Ohio, at least while the freeze is in effect.
Jason Slattery, Rudolph/Libbe director of solar, said the company’s impressive growth in solar – from zero to 10 percent of Rudolph/Libbe’s revenue since 2009 – will continue, but that most of that growth will come from states such as Michigan and New York, which have more enticing policies for wind and solar.
He attributes most of that growth to his company’s installation costs dropping from $9 a unit to $2 a unit in five years.
“We think the costs of doing solar is an unstoppable train and it’s not getting off the tracks,” Mr. Slattery said.
The controversy over Ohio’s freeze of renewable-energy mandates appears likely to loom larger as Mr. Kasich’s re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Ed Fitzgerald heats up.
When Mr. Kasich was in Toledo earlier this month, the Fitzgerald campaign said Lucas County residents should realize they’ll be affected by bills he signed into law that will discourage growth in renewable energy. Mr. Kasich has said a freeze was necessary to re-examine where Ohio was headed.
The military could help Ohio soften the blow as legislators and lobbyists sort out what’s next.
The Ohio Air National Guard’s massive investment in solar power at the 180th Fighter Wing near Toledo Express Airport, which began in 2007, is just one of many examples across Ohio in which the military has demonstrated a strong commitment to renewable energy.
Another major military investment in northwest Ohio has been the large field of solar panels installed at Ottawa County’s Camp Perry, a project undertaken by the 200th Red Horse squadron. Camp Perry is an Ohio National Guard training facility.
“When you look back at history, the military has been on the cutting edge. It’s no surprise. The military is once again leading the way,” said retired Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shields, now coordinator of Cleveland State University’s veteran student success program.
Renewable energy appeals to the military for security reasons. It makes the military more self-sufficient and less reliant on regional electric grids.
The U.S. Defense Department is the nation’s largest energy user but also its greatest renewable energy investor.
A 2012 Government Accountability Office study showed that 23 federal agencies and 130 subagencies did nearly 700 renewable energy projects in fiscal 2010.
The U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and Department of Interior were responsible for nearly 60 percent of those federal initiatives.
“Energy is a security issue and can be, and is, used as a weapon,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said during an April 2 speech in Italy.
To Tom Bullock of the Pew Charitable Trust, the military’s continued interest in renewable power shows it is more innovative than Ohio conservatives trying to block the state’s progress in renewable energy.
“What we have is the federal government leading in a way the state government has chosen not to lead,” Mr. Bullock said.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding