From Leader To Loser: How Ohio Became The First State To Rollback Clean Energy Progress, And How It’S Already Hurting Us
By Trish Demeter
Few stories are as exciting and frustrating as the story about Ohio’s Clean Energy Law. This story begins in 2008, when the bipartisan framers of Ohio’s Clean Energy Law very consciously set a course for a cleaner electric sector that used energy generation and management as an economic development tool.
The vision of Ohio Senate Bill 221 was to gradually grow the diversity of our energy mix, reduce energy waste and inefficiencies, clean up the air, and use Ohio companies and Ohio workers to get the job done. The policy to execute this vision was simple: establish minimum standards to prompt an increase in electric utilities’ use of renewable energy, require special preference for renewable energy projects built in Ohio, and expand energy efficiency programs.
The economic and environmental progress made since these standards were established could warm the coolest of hearts, particularly when considering that the clean energy industry has surged forward even in some of the hardest economic years in Ohio. If Ohio’s Clean Energy Law were to have a poster child in terms of what this policy intended to do for our state, the towns of Van Wert and Paulding in Northwest Ohio would be it.
Just a few years ago, these small towns were being left behind by the 21st century economy, and were hit especially hard by the recession. County offices were forced to go to four-day workweeks to save money, the local jail was outsourced to another county, and the city stopped funding its economic development office, which is supposed to bring jobs to the community.
Fast forward a few years, the community is now home to hundreds of wind turbines that are generating not only clean, renewable energy, but are also generating a host of economic benefits for local businesses, school districts, and farmers. This is the story of how large wind energy companies invested hundreds of millions in Ohio at a time when other industry sectors were closing down factories and laying off workers. See the moving video here.
If this video wasn’t enough to move you, consider these facts: Today, about 35,000 Ohioans are now employed in a clean energy industry of some kind, Ohio has seen enough wind energy come online to power 180,000 homes, we are still first in the nation for the number of companies in the wind energy supply chain, over 1,000 new renewable energy projects have been installed since 2009, and Ohioans have saved more than $4 billion dollars on their electric bills because of energy efficiency.
This policy aimed not only to spur economic development, but to achieve another important goal: clean up Ohio’s air. With roughly two-thirds of our electricity coming from coal-fired power plants, Ohio’s efficiency and renewable standards mean that we’re enjoying cleaner air now that over 9,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide, 40,000 tons of lung-irritating sulfur dioxide, and 1,000 pounds of mercury are being prevented from entering the environment.
If there’s a clear antagonist in this story, the Ohio General Assembly and national fossil-fuel interests would be it.
State lawmakers first started talking about rolling back Ohio’s Clean Energy Law in 2012, when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) circulated model legislation to repeal state clean energy standards. In fact, Ohio was just one of fifteen states that saw the introduction of clean energy standards repeal bills in 2013. But, Ohio would be the first – and so far the only – to actually move forward with a bill that dismantled clean energy progress.
After eighteen months of debate about the value and benefit of Ohio’s Clean Energy Law, the Ohio General Assembly passed Ohio Senate Bill 310, halting much of this great progress by instituting a two-year suspension or “freeze” of the annual goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency. This bill contained permanent law changes that deeply cut away at Ohio’s standards. For example, the bill repealed the “buy Ohio” provision in which half of the renewable energy goal must be met with energy generated by renewable projects within Ohio.
Within days of SB 310 passing, the Ohio Senate decided to kick the wind industry while it was down when it slipped an eleventh-hour amendment into the budget bill that dramatically changed the rules of where wind turbines can be built. These setbacks for wind turbines are even greater than what’s required for oil and gas wells! To highlight the severity of this change, consider this: Ohio’s first major wind farm has 152 wind turbines. If this new setback limit had been in place when this project was developed, only 12 of the 152 wind turbines would have been built.
It’s not difficult to conclude that the result of both of these actions hs chilled the clean energy marketplace in Ohio, and by default will make electric utilities more reliant on old, dirty coal plants. And, without access to energy efficiency rebates and incentives, customers may soon see increases in their electric bills.
But what does it matter that renewable energy get a fair shake in Ohio? Why should cutting energy waste be a priority when electricity is relatively cheap to come by? Because, this debate over Ohio’s clean energy future is as much about consumer liberty as it is about theenvironment and attracting clean energy businesses to Ohio.
As a consumer, the range of choices you have in meeting your energy needs – rooftop solar, geothermal, wind energy, energy efficiency – is growing. And as a conscientious consumer, akin to the local food movement, you are becoming more and more aware of where your electricity comes from and the social and environmental impacts your choices have.
As consumers become more informed and empowered, Ohio’s energy marketplace will become increasingly democratized, and we’ll begin to see more and more Van Werts and Pauldings pop up in Ohio. This trend will be tough for fossil-fuel interests and political ideologies to stop.
Trish Demeter is the Managing Director of Energy & Clean Air Programs for the Ohio Environmental Council