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Kicking the Can Down the Road on Clean Energy

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” said 17th century poet Edward Young. In the case of Ohio’s clean energy standards, procrastination has become the thief of not only time, but progress.

In 2014, the Ohio General Assembly put Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards on ice. This came with a promise that the Energy Mandates Study Committee would take the time to really examine the costs and benefits of clean energy, and make recommendations on what Ohio’s policy should be.

But when their report came out in September 2015, let’s just say the homework they turned in was uninspired, misguided and well, incomplete. Having only examined the costs, and none of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency, the theme that emerged from this Study was procrastination. Just extend the freeze indefinitely, it said; just wait longer for more certainty before we decide whether or not we’re going to be a state that welcomes clean technologies and holds big corporate utilities to some minimum standards on cutting energy waste through efficiency.

Fast forward to present time and we now have two pieces of legislation in the Ohio House and Ohio Senate that, in large part, carry forward the recommendations of the Study Committee. Senate Bill 320, introduced by Senator Bill Seitz, and House Bill 554, introduced by Representative Ron Amstutz. A third bill from from Senator Kris Jordan proposes a repeal of the clean energy standards altogether. This bill, boilerplate ALEC legislation, has been introduced by Sen. Jordan three times now and has never progressed past a first hearing.

But, in the scheme of things, at least Sen. Jordan’s bill is honest and forthright in what it would do. These other two bills are much more devious. On their face, they appear somewhat innocuous, but on closer read, these bills would very deftly kill our comatose clean energy standards, weaken customer choice, and stifle innovation in Ohio.

Despite being touted as “companion” bills, HB 554 and SB 320 are alike in one way, and different in all other respects. The one provision they have in common would be to expand what kind and size of company could opt-out of the energy efficiency rebate programs that utilities offer. Right now, this opt-out is only available to huge energy users – like steel mills and aluminum manufacturers – but these bills would allow smaller manufacturers to opt-out. The effect of this provision is that less energy efficiency would be done in the customer sector that needs it the most, effectively hurting the overall competitiveness of Ohio’s manufacturing sector.

Both bills propose a deathknell to clean energy standards, but perhaps we can say that HB 554 is first-degree murder, whereas SB 320 is maybe manslaughter. HB 554 indefinitely freezes the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. Because each utility has already met the 2014 goal, this bill would require nothing more of the utilities in terms of renewable energy purchases or energy efficiency investments moving forward.

SB 320 proposes a three-year extension of the freeze out to 2019. However, the bill doesn’t require the utilities to show any compliance with the standards until 2022, so it’s unclear what the utilities would be required to do in 2020 and 2021. Maybe a nice vacation in Fiji?

All the additional provisions in SB 320 is where things get weird, and just…messy. Most confounding are the provisions dealing with customers’ ability to install small renewable energy systems, like rooftop solar. Many of these customers are net metering customers, which involves a special contract they have with their utility in order to allow for credits when their systems put more power back onto the grid than they use in their home or business. SB 320 proposes twisting current Ohio law to better favor utilities over customers’ interests. It would inhibit their freedom to install and benefit from these systems.

Senator Seitz’s bill makes magic happen (sarcasm!) in the definition of what is a renewable energy technology in Ohio. For the longest time, the consensus on what a “renewable” resource is centered on what was continually and naturally occurring, such as the shining sun, the blowing wind and the flow of water. But SB 320 proposes some witchery around this common definition so that “renewable” would also now include nuclear fission, combustion of natural gas, and combustion (not sure of what) occurring in a facility equipped with things such as “pulse-jet fabric filters,” “scrubbers,” and “continuous admissions [sic]monitoring.” Ummm…. Say again?

Lastly, in a direct declaration of war on the separation of powers, SB 320 proposes to prohibit Ohio regulators from implementing federal carbon pollution regulations. The limitations on Ohio EPA that SB 320 proposes effectively tie the state’s hands in coming up with cost-effective compliance strategies that will reduce carbon pollution coming from Ohio’s power sector. So, as the expiration of the freeze is getting closer every day – December 31, 2016 – what are we to do?

The hour is late, and the General Assembly would rather kick the can down the road than carry out their assignment to come up with a reasonable set of standards for the state. With only weeks left in the legislative session before a long summer break, I feel an epic all-nighter coming on in the form of a lame duck session action on the fate of Ohio’s clean energy standards. I pulled some all-nighters in my college days, and I can say that there doesn’t seem to be enough coffee and heavy metal on the proverbial iPod that will allow us to do our best work in a lame duck scenario. We had the time, but it’s been squandered, so it’ll take some strong leadership from Governor Kasich and the cooler heads in the General Assembly to fix this issue for the better, and for good.