On Wednesday the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio unanimously ruled that Akron, Ohio-based energy supplier FirstEnergy Corp. must credit its Ohio customers $43.3 million for overcharging for renewable energy credits (RECs) from 2009-2011 that it purchased from its affiliate, FirstEnergy Solutions.
RECs are tradable, non-tangible energy credits that represent proof that one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity has been sourced from an eligible renewable energy resource. First Energy Solutions is an energy generator and supplier, while First Energy Corp. is an electricity distributor, which means that it sources its electricity from elsewhere, which requires them to issue bids seeking the most competitively priced energy from a supplier such as First Energy Solutions.
According to the First Energy Corp. website, First Energy Solutions is the competitive subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. Both suppliers are based in Akron. An audit conducted by Exeter Associates Inc. revealed that FirstEnergy Corp. paid 15 times more than any other company in the country to purchase the RECs from FirstEnergy Solutions, and FirstEnergy Corp. passed that overcharge onto consumers.
In a copy of the order issued yesterday by the PUC obtained by CityBeat, it states that, "The Companies contend that, given the nascent market, lack of market information available to the Companies, and uncertainty regarding future supply and prices, the Companies' decisions to purchase in-state RECs were reasonable and prudent."
In summary, FirstEnergy contends that because it was scrambling to find a way to meet the state's Clean Energy Law requirements, it had to buy these RECs no matter the cost, and that there are no legal specifications within the Clean Energy Law that requires RECs be purchased or sold at market price; and that the costs issued to them, and subsequently, customers, weren't unreasonable.
The Ohio Consumers Counsel, however, says that there were cheaper alternatives available and that FirstEnergy should have checked with the PUC prior to paying 15 times more for RECs than any other country had in the past. If they'd rejected the exorbitant bids, says OCC, and instead consulted with PUC and OCC, they could have come up with a solution to prevent from charging customers excessively high rates.
In June 2012, FirstEnergy Solutions was the winning bidder in Cincinnati's energy aggregation program, which is supposed to allow us to receive lower "aggregate" rates for buying in bulk. At the time, FirstEnergy touted the merits of its "100 percent green" energy supply, sourced from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable resources. The bid was expected to save homeowners around $133 annually.
What enabled FirstEnergy to provide the "clean" energy was its use of a system with non-tangible renewable energy credit (RECs) that each represent proof that one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity has been sources from a renewable energy resource.
Purchasing the credits from its subsidiary allows FirstEnergy Corp. to meet the state's renewable energy standard, which requires that by 2025 all Ohio utility companies provide at least 25 percent of their energy from renewable resources.
Because the lawsuit issued by the PUC examines only the amount paid for RECs during compliance periods between 2009 and 2011, Cincinnati customers who switched to FirstEnergy Solutions last June should not be affected, although the FirstEnergy arms' ambiguous behavior, says Dan Sawmiller, a Sierra Club member who manages Ohio's Beyond Coal campaign, is a likely indicator that the company may be engaging in other unethical practices related to consumer transparency.
The company has not been devoid of controversy in the past. In March, CityBeat reported on state environmental groups' concerns with the movement to lower requirements for defining renewable energy and energy efficiency; FirstEnergy was part of the bloc working to weaken Ohio's Clean Energy Law in hopes of keeping corporation costs low. FirstEnergy was also chastised by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in 2009 for distributing and charging customers for energy-efficient light bulbs without receiving customers' authorization.
Sawmiller commended the PUC for fining First Energy, although he suggests the fine is likely modest for the actual damages. He still expresses concern about the need for corporate separation between the two FirstEnergy arms. "The commission left much to be desired in terms of transparency, leaving customers in the dark about what types of renewables are being provided, where are they coming from and at what cost," says Sawmiller in Sierra Club's press release.
You poison one little French farmer and all hell breaks loose. Giant chemical-maker Monsanto yesterday announced it plans to appeal a Monday ruling that one of its herbicides in 2004 poisoned French farmer Paul Francois, who says inhaling a Monsanto weedkiller led to “memory loss, headaches and stammering”(coincidentally, these are the same symptoms of the accidental hangover™).
In addition to the French farmer being pissed enough at the company for giving him a hangover when he was trying to work his farmland, there are about a million other people officially declaring themselves as against Monsanto via “Millions Against Monsanto,” an organic consumers association that campaigns for “health, justice, sustainability, peace and democracy.” If you accept the possibility of Monsanto obstructing even a majority of these five concepts, it’s easy to believe the company has enemies from a lot of different backgrounds.
That’s why Monday’s ruling by a French court finding Monsanto legally responsible for poisoning Francois and ordering it to compensate him has enlivened a bunch of angry activists.
Monsanto offers a wealth of content documenting the agricultural
biotechnology corporation’s government ties, tendencies to take
small dairies to court, refusal to compensate veterans for Agent
Orange and getting their nasty chemicals in normal people’s water
supplies. (Wikipedia is hilariously filled with references to things like dumping toxic waste in the UK, Indonesian bribing convictions and fines for false advertising.) Even 'ol boy Obama has gotten caught up in the mix with
charts like this one circulating on Facebook:
The latest news out of Millions Against Monsanto is the moving forward of a California ballot initiative to require mandatory GMO labeling that polls show has 80 percent support. According to the site:
"A win for the California Initiative would be a huge blow to biotech and a huge victory for food activists. Monsanto and their minions have billions invested in GMOs and they are willing to spend millions to defeat this initiative. California is the 8th largest economy in the world. Labeling laws in CA will affect packaging and ingredient decisions nation-wide. The bill has been carefully written to ensure that it will not increase costs to consumers or producers."
Back in France, our
friendly farmer will have to wait a while for whatever compensation
poisoning amounts to, as Monsanto says it will appeal the ruling.
According to The Washington Post: Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher
says the company does not think there is “sufficient data” to
demonstrate a link between the use of Lasso herbicide and the
symptoms Francois reported.
"We do not agree any injury was accidentally caused nor did the company intentionally permit injury," Helscher said. "Lasso herbicide was ... successfully used by farmers on millions of hectares around the world."
The study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found salaried workers fared much better than hourly workers, and all-cause mortality was below expectations for them despite increased malignancies in blood, bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes and thymus cells.
Hourly workers weren’t so lucky, according to the study. They had above-average cancer mortality rates in comparison to the rest of the U.S. population, but tests only provided evidence for a connection between hourly workers and intestinal cancer.
Previous studies also found a link between non-malignant respiratory disease and exposure to radiation, but the NIOSH study found no such connection. The discrepancy could be due to “improved exposure assessment, different outcome groupings and extended follow-up” in the NIOSH study, according to the study’s abstract.
The NIOSH study followed 6,409 workers who were employed at Fernald for at least 30 days between 1951 and 1985, following them through 2004.
Fernald was initially surrounded by controversy in 1984 when it was revealed that it was releasing millions of pounds of uranium dust into the atmosphere, causing radioactive contamination in surrounding areas. The controversy was elevated when Dave Bocks, an employee at the factory, mysteriously disappeared and was later found dead at a uranium processing furnace. Some suspected Bocks was murdered for allegedly being a whistleblower, but no evidence of foul play was ever officially recorded.
Environmental Justice is about keeping already polluted neighborhoods from having to accept more polluting neighbors – usually industry, not a family of 12 or more. The myth that jobs will be lost and businesses will choose other locations (taking their precious tax dollars with them) is one of several objections used to support placing polluting companies in “overburdened” areas.
Without much fanfare
but with supporters looking on in the Losantiville Room in Union Terminal,
Cincinnati City Council passed an ordinance on Wednesday banning the injection of
wastewater underground within city limits.
“I’m proud to be on the first City Council to ban injection wells,” said Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, who submitted the ordinance to council.
“I want to give props to the solicitors … who have come up with a very unusual thing in City Council — a one page ordinance.”
The ordinance, which passed unanimously after being voted out of committee on Tuesday, is aimed at preventing the injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, under Cincinnati. Its injection has been linked to a dozen earthquakes in northern Ohio.
Opponents also worry that the chemicals in the water, which is used to drill underground to free up gas and oil, can seep into drinking water. Oil and gas companies aren’t required to disclose which chemicals they use.
It’s unclear if the city’s ban on wastewater injection would hold up against a 2004 state law that gives the state of Ohio sole power in regulating oil and gas drilling. That regulatory power also extends to Class 2 injection wells.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Quinlivan cited a ProPublica story that said between 2007 and 2010, one well integrity violation was filed for every six wastewater injection wells.
She says data like this makes it clear injection wells are
Food and Water Watch organizer Alison Auciello spoke in
support of the City Council ordinance at the news conference.
“We’re pleased City Council has moved swiftly for the protection of its citizens,” Auciello said.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has received no injection well permit requests for southwestern Ohio, but Auciello says the legislation is a good preventive measure.
Heidi Hetzel-Evans, a spokesperson for ODNR, says it wouldn't be feasible to build injection wells in southwestern Ohio due to the region's geology.
"It's safe to say oil and gas drilling has no direct impact on southwestern Ohio," Hetzel-Evans says.
Auciello says more bans like the Cincinnati ordinance are necessary in Ohio. She says she’s concerned that Ohio is being turned into a dumping ground as massive amounts of wastewater from Pennsylvania are brought to Ohio due to a lack of regulation.
Auciello also echoed calls from environmental groups to ban fracking in Ohio. However, fracking supporters — including Gov. John Kasich — insist the process can be made safe with proper regulations.
This story was updated to reflect City Council's afternoon vote.
As cities rush to solve major problems with water infrastructure, newer technologies are being touted by city agencies as cheaper, cleaner solutions. In two different local projects, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) and a City Council task force are looking into green ways to solve the city’s water needs.
On Wednesday, CityBeat covered some of the benefits and downsides of green water infrastructure. According to the report reviewed Wednesday, green water infrastructure is cheaper and does create a boon of jobs, but it faces some funding and education problems. However, it was unclear how the green ideas would translate into Cincinnati.
Tony Parrott, executive director of MSD, says despite the challenges, green infrastructure is clearly the cheaper option. The organization is partnering with local organizations to adopt a series of new projects — among them, green roofs, rain gardens, wetlands — to meet a new federal mandate that requires MSD to reduce the amount of sewer overflow that makes it into local rivers and streams.
“That is a very costly mandate,” he says. “Our belief is that green infrastructure and sustainable infrastructure will allow us to achieve a lot of those objectives a lot cheaper than your conventional deep tunnel systems or other gray type of infrastructure.”
Of course, conventional — or “gray” — infrastructure still
has its place, but adopting a hybrid of green and gray infrastructure
or just green infrastructure in some areas was found to be cheaper in
MSD analyses, according to Parrott.
Plans are already being executed. On top of the smaller projects that slow the flow of storm water into sewer systems, MSD is also taking what Parrott calls a “large-scale approach to resurrect or daylight former streams and creeks that were buried over 150 years ago.” This approach will rely on the new waterways to redirect storm water so it doesn’t threaten to flood sewers and cause sewer overflow, Parrott says.
The programs are being approached in a “holistic way,” according to Parrott. MSD intends to refine and reiterate on what works as the programs develop. However, that comes with challenges when setting goals and asking for funding.
“We think that if you’re going to use a more integrated approach, it may require us to ask for more time to get some of these projects done and in the ground and then see how effective they are,” Parrott says.
If it all plays out, the ongoing maintenance required by the green approach could be good for the local economy, according to Parrott: “With the green and sustainable infrastructure, you’re creating a new class of what we call green jobs for maintenance. The majority of those jobs are something local folks can do as opposed to the conventional process.” Additionally, the green jobs also tend to benefit “disadvantaged communities” more than conventional jobs, according to Parrott.
The argument is essentially what Jeremy Hays, chief strategist for state and local initiatives at Green For All, told CityBeat on Wednesday. Since the green jobs require less education and training, they’re more accessible to “disadvantaged workers,” according to Hays: “They require some training and some skills, but not four years’ worth because it’s skills that you can get at a community college or even on the job.”
While MSD fully encourages the use of rain barrels, recycling will not be a top priority for MSD’s programs. Instead, that priority goes to the Rainwater Harvesting Task Force, a City Council task force intended to find ways to reform the city’s plumbing code to make harvesting and recycling rainwater a possibility.
Bob Knight, a member of the task force, says there is already a model in place the city can use. The task force is looking into adopting the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) in Cincinnati. The code will “prescriptively tell” architects and engineers how to design a rainwater harvesting system. In other words, IGCC would set a standard for the city.
Deciding on this code was not without challenges. At first, the task force wasn’t even sure if it could dictate how rainwater is harvested and recycled. The first question Knight had to ask was, “Who has that authority?” What it found is a mix of local agencies — Greater Cincinnati Water Works, MSD and Cincinnati Department of Planning — will all have to work together to implement the city’s new code.
The task force hopes to give its findings to Quality of Life Committee, which is led by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, by the end of November.
The resolution expresses council’s dissatisfaction with the Ohio Legislature for granting “special privileges to the oil and natural gas industry” and asks it to repeal any laws that pre-empt local control over drilling.
The resolution targets the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which uses chemically-laced water to free up natural gas trapped in shale formations underneath Ohio.
Fracking opponents worry that the chemicals used in the fluid — which companies aren’t required to disclose — can be toxic to people and animals.
Prior to the council vote, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan held a news conference on the steps of City Hall.
“I believe local officials should have a say on all matters related to potentially hazardous activities such as fracking,” Quinlivan said in an emailed statement. “I urge my colleagues to send a strong message to the Ohio Governor, the Ohio Legislature, and Cincinnati residents by passing this resolution.”
A 2004 state law puts regulation of oil and gas drilling
under the state’s purview, preventing municipalities from regulating
drilling on their land.
Copies of the resolution will be sent to Gov. John Kasich and members of the Ohio General Assembly elected from the Cincinnati area. The resolution comes after Ohio recently lifted a moratorium on new injection wells, which shoot wastewater deep underground for storage.
There had been a temporary ban on new wells almost a year ago after seismologists said an injection was to blame for 11 earthquakes around the Youngstown area.
City council in August passed an ordinance to band injection wells within city limits. Because the injection well ban doesn’t mention drilling, council hoped it wouldn’t clash with the state law preventing local regulation of oil and gas drilling.