April 1, 2012

Ohio: Energy law works

FirstEnergy Corp. doesn’t want to develop renewable energy, but the electricity provider has grudgingly agreed to invest in it. That demonstrates why lawmakers should ignore an ill-advised effort to repeal Ohio’s landmark clean-energy law.

Senate Bill 221 doesn’t require utilities to generate their own wind and solar power. Nor does it oblige them to produce electricity from corn stalks, or drill deep below the Earth’s surface for geothermal warmth. Instead, the 2009 law gives utilities the option to invest in other companies’ projects that do those things.

Thanks to a little prodding and political diplomacy by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, FirstEnergy chose the latter course. As a result, the utility met its obligation under the law for the first time in 2011.

FirstEnergy, the state’s largest utility, fared poorly in Environment Ohio’s second annual report card on compliance with the law because data from 2011 was not available when numbers were analyzed. But even FirstEnergy’s lack of compliance through 2010 could not diminish the report’s enthusiasm for the law. The citizen-based advocacy group said the law has stimulated markets for renewable energy and inspired largely overlooked conservation efforts. The result: more jobs and more economic stability.

The law reasonably requires utilities to get at least 12.5 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2025. After two years of foot-dragging, FirstEnergy has invested in a solar array that will provide 15 percent of the power for the Campbell Soup Co.’s factory in Napoleon. And the electricity provider agreed to purchase 100 megawatts of power annually, enough to power 100,000 homes, from Ohio’s largest wind farm, Iberdrola Renewables’ Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties.

The law also was the impetus for a similar wind-power project in Paulding County that sells electricity to another one of Ohio’s largest utilities, American Electric Power. And the law helped bring the state’s largest solar project to northwest Ohio, a 12-megawatt facility in Wyandot County.

The report also notes improvements in energy efficiency. Because of the clean-energy law, Ohio now saves enough energy to power 82,000 homes a year. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the state has the capacity to reduce its energy consumption a third by 2025. That’s significant because Ohio, with its large industrial base, is the nation’s fourth-largest energy user.

The next step is for the General Assembly to take a serious look at Senate Bill 289, which would expand incentives to major industrial facilities that make efficient use of surplus steam to offset their own power needs. With cogeneration technology, industry takes a waste product — steam — and uses it to spin turbines that generate power.

The impetus for this bill is a cogeneration project proposed for Middletown AK Steel. The biggest question isn’t whether the concept is worth pursuing, but the degree to which the bill may be tailored to that project. It is certainly a bill to watch.

Senate Bill 221 deserves continued support. And in Senate Bill 289, lawmakers have an intriguing possibility to expand upon the clean-energy law’s mission.


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