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How Clean Is Too Clean?

Ohio considers relaxing energy efficiency standards; environmental groups take exception

By German Lopez · March 27th, 2013 · News
news1_solarpanels_cincinnatizooPhoto: Cincinnati Zoo

State environmental groups and an Akron-based energy company are at odds over a 2008 law that tasks the state and utility companies with meeting stringent requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, the Cincinnati Republican who heads the Senate Public Utilities Committee, has agreed to review Ohio’s Clean Energy Law, while FirstEnergy, an Akron-based energy company, protests the requirements as too expensive for the company and consumers around the state.

But Seitz’s decision has alarmed environmental groups who largely see the law as effective three years later. 

In a report titled “Ohio’s Clean Energy Success Story: The Clean Energy Law Three Years In,” advocacy organization Environment Ohio claims the law’s renewable energy rules, which require utility companies meet 12.5 percent of their energy needs with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, have spurred clean energy projects all around the state, particularly Cincinnati.

One local example is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, which in 2011 installed solar panels in its parking lot that will generate enough electricity to meet 20 percent of its energy needs and reduce pollution related to climate change by 1,775 tons annually, according to the report.

The report highlighted other examples of successful projects from around the state: solar energy panels in Centerburg School District in Knox County; wind turbines at Cooper Farms in Montgomery County; and the Blue Creek Wind Farm that Ohio State University plans to use to meet 25 percent of the campus’ electricity needs.

“The goal (of the Clean Energy Law) was to put renewable energy and energy efficiency on the grid,” says Julian Boggs, spokesperson for Environment Ohio. “Did that happen? Yes, it sure did.”

Doug Colafella, spokesperson for FirstEnergy, says his company isn’t involved in disputing the provision requiring renewed and advanced energy.

He says his company is actually “made whole” by some of the requirements. He points out FirstEnergy is currently involved in bringing renewable energy to Cincinnati through a new aggregation program, which the city of Cincinnati previously claimed will reach up to 53,000 companies and households and save about $113 per year on electricity bills, in comparison to Duke Energy’s rates.

The Environment Ohio report also acknowledges FirstEnergy’s involvement in local renewable energy projects: “An agreement with FirstEnergy to buy the renewable electricity credits from the project is helping to finance the (solar panel) installation (at the Cincinnati Zoo).”

Instead, FirstEnergy is focused on weakening the other major provision of the Clean Energy Law: the energy efficiency standards. As part of the law, utility companies are required to work with business customers to improve energy efficiency and reduce consumption by 22 percent by 2025. Colafella says that requirement is putting a strain on customers and FirstEnergy.

“We can only be as successful as the community that we’re serving, and we feel like customers are paying more than they should be every month in their bill,” he says. “That’s not good for us, either. That’s not good for communities.”

But Boggs says FirstEnergy is not really interested in protecting its customers: “The idea that FirstEnergy is looking out for consumers is absolutely ludicrous.”

Boggs cited a case from 2009, when the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio temporarily halted FirstEnergy’s program to automatically deliver and charge customers for energy-efficient light bulbs. The program sparked widespread furor among customers and politicians, who said consumers were being overcharged and, in some cases, didn’t want or need the bulbs to begin with. 

In the aftermath, FirstEnergy issued public apologies for the program, and the company reworked the details of delivery and charging. The program’s new iteration only provides light bulbs if customers ask for them. 

Moreover, Boggs argues that efficiency produces savings when compared to the realistic alternatives. “Efficiency costs far less than a new coal plant or practically any other new generation (plant),” Boggs says. “You can’t compare efficiency to nothing at all. You can compare efficiency to any other energy source or capacity.”

He added, “While deploying energy efficiency may incrementally raise everyone’s bills, it’s raising everyone’s bills far less than if FirstEnergy was building a nuclear plant.”

Boggs’ claims are supported by a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), another environmental group. Citing estimates from American Electric Power, Duke Energy and Dayton Power and Light, the NRDC report found the $170 million investment made in energy efficiency by the three utility companies between 2009 and 2011 will reduce Ohio’s energy bill by $800 million over time. In other words, Ohio’s three other major energy companies have estimated that energy efficiency measures will bring costs down, not up, according to the NRDC report.

When asked about the estimates, Colafella said he doesn’t deny the long-term savings on initial efficiency investments; instead, he says FirstEnergy is concerned about how later investments will play out and whether later efficiency targets will be attainable. He explains FirstEnergy and its customers are currently able to retrofit facilities with “the low-hanging fruit,” such as environmentally friendly light bulbs. But once those easy options run out, FirstEnergy and customers will be left with options that are too expensive to be reasonably undertaken, according to Colafella.

Since the Clean Energy Law became active in 2009, some reports have highlighted Cincinnati’s success in meeting energy efficiency standards. A ranking released by Energy Star, which certifies buildings for meeting high efficiency standards, put Cincinnati at No. 13 in 2012 for most certified buildings, up from No. 25 in 2010 and 2011 — even though the ranking included much larger cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle. ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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