No matter what a politician says, coal has never been and can’t be “clean” or serve as an “alternative” fuel that’s good for the environment. On position held by many groups is that limiting the use of coal is necessary to create the incentive to come up with energy alternatives that truly don’t harm the environment. The League of Women Voters is one of those groups.
Sorry, Dr. Suess.
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.
(Activist Jeff Cobb, of Climate Change Advocates of Cincinnati, outlines why the climate change treaty meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, is important and how U.S. politicians are lagging in the effort.)
The parallels between Nero fiddling while Rome burned and the callous neglect by politicians like the U.S. Senate while the Earth burns due to global warming is sadly apt.
One could easily write an entire column containing only the names of the scientific reports that prove that climate change is happening, is caused by human activity and why action needs to be taken to reverse it. Scientific, political, religious, national security and economic thinkers who have looked at climate change understand our dire straits and beg for changes.
A Dec. 5 report is encouraging Cincinnati to become the solar energy capital of Ohio and the broader region. The report, titled “Building a Solar Cincinnati,” was put together by Environment Ohio to show the benefits and potential of Cincinnati regarding solar power.
Christian Adams, who wrote the report along with Julian Boggs, says Cincinnati is especially poised to take charge in this renewable energy front, in contrast to the rest of the state, which gets 82 percent of its electricity from coal. Adams points to the sustainability-minded city officials and public, a “budding solar business sector” and the great business environment as the city as reasons why Cincinnati could become a pivotal leader.
With 21 public solar installations to date, the city has already seen some of the benefits of solar power. The most obvious benefit is cleaner air, which leads to better overall health and helps combat global warming. But the report points out that local solar initiatives mean local jobs. “You can’t export these jobs,” Adams says. “It’s a great opportunity for economic revitalization.”
With solar energy comes an array of job opportunities for solar installers, solar designers, engineers, construction workers, project managers, sales associates and marketing consultants. That’s enough to create brisk job creation. The report points out “energy-related segments of the clean economy added jobs at a torrid pace over the last few years, bucking trends of the Great Recession.”
Still, there are hurdles.
Although solar energy saves money in the long term, installing solar
panels has a high upfront cost. The cost can make the short term too bleak for many potential customers.
To help overcome the short-term problem, the report suggests third-party financing. In these financing agreements, customers agree to give up roof space to have a solar power company install solar panels, and then customers agree to buy their power needs from the company. It’s a win for the solar power company because the panels eventually pay for themselves through new customers, and it’s a win for the customer because he sees more stable, lower energy costs and cleaner air. Adams points out that a few businesses and individuals in the area have already taken part in such agreements with great success.
There are also some incentives already in place to encourage solar energy. Ohio’s Clean Energy Law, which was passed in 2008, pushes utility companies into the renewable energy market with Solar Renewable Energy Credits. These are credits utility companies must earn to meet annual benchmarks by installing solar panels or purchasing them from third parties. Duke Energy has followed the law’s requirements by establishing its own renewable energy credit program.
Ohioans also have access to some tax breaks — the Energy Conversion Facilities Sales Tax Exemption, Air-Quality Improvement Tax Incentives and Qualified Energy Property Tax Exemptions — and loan programs — the Energy Loan Fund and Advanced Energy Fund — that encourage solar and other renewable energy sources.
Larry Falkin, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Quality (OEQ), says the report didn’t have much new information, but he’s glad it can be used to push solar energy to the broader public. He touted the benefits of job creation and reducing reliance on foreign energy sources by moving toward energy independence.
For now, the city is mostly taking the approach of leading by example. Falkin says the city is acting like a “model” for solar energy. Cincinnati added solar installations to two city facilities this year, and another will be added by the end of the month. Falkin’s office is also working together with different organizations to keep any momentum going.
Adams and Falkin both attended a Dec. 5 roundtable discussion
that engaged regional officials, including solar businesses,
environmental and sustainability groups, education leaders and the
Cincinnati Zoo. They both said the roundtable went well.
“I think all the right people are coming together and doing the right things to try to move us forward,” Falkin says.
Ohioans might not give it much thought outside of paying the water bill, but better water infrastructure can make cities more efficient, healthier and cleaner. That’s why Green For All, a group that promotes clean energy initiatives, is now focusing on cleaner, greener water infrastructure.
A little-known green conference took place in Cincinnati Oct. 15-17. The Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference was in town on those three days, and it brought together leaders from around the U.S. to discuss sustainable water programs for cities. The conference mostly focused on policy ideas, success stories and challenges faced by modern water infrastructure.
For Green For All, attending the conference was about establishing one key element that isn’t often associated with water and sewer systems: jobs. Jeremy Hays, chief strategist for state and local initiatives at Green For All, says this was the focus for his organization.
Hays says it’s important for groups promoting better water infrastructure to include the jobs aspect of the equation. To Hays, while it’s certainly important for cities to establish cleaner and more efficient initiatives, it’s also important to get people back to work. He worries this side of water infrastructure policies are “often left out.”
He points to a report released by Green For All during last year’s conference. The report looked at how investing the $188.4 billion suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage rainwater and preserve water quality in the U.S. would translate into economic development and jobs: “We find that an investment of $188.4 billion spread equally over the next five years would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs.”
To accomplish that robust growth and job development, the report claims infrastructure would have to mimic “natural solutions.” It would focus on green roofs, which are rooftop areas with planted vegetation; urban tree planting; rain gardens, which are areas that use vegetation to reduce storm water runoff; bioswales, which are shallow, vegetated depressions that catch rainwater and redirect it; constructed wetlands; permeable pavements, which are special pavements that allow water to pass through more easily; rainwater harvesting, which uses rain barrels and other storage devices to collect and recycle rainwater; and green alleys, which reduce paved or impervious surfaces with vegetation that reduces storm water runoff.
The report says constructing and maintaining these sorts of programs would produce massive growth, especially in comparison to other programs already supported by presidential candidates and the federal government: “Infrastructure investments create over 16 percent more jobs dollar-for-dollar than a payroll tax holiday, nearly 40 percent more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut, and over five times as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts.”
Hays says the jobs created also don’t have barriers that keep them inaccessible to what he calls “disadvantaged workers”: “A lot of these jobs that we’re focused on in infrastructure, especially green infrastructure, are much more accessible. 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.”
Beyond jobs, Green For All supports greener infrastructure due to its health benefits. Hays cited heat waves as one example. He says the extra plants and vegetation planted to support green infrastructure can help absorb heat that’s typically contained by cities.
Hays’ example has a lot of science to stand on. The extra heating effect in cities, known as the urban heat island effect, is caused because cities have more buildings and pavements that absorb and contain heat, more pollution that warms the air and fewer plants that enable evaporation and transpiration through a process called evapotranspiration. The EPA promotes green roofs in order to help combat the urban heat island effect.
Hays says green infrastructure also creates cleaner air because trees capture carbon dioxide and break it down to oxygen. The work of the extra trees can also help reduce global warming, although Hays cautions that the ultimate effect is probably “relatively small.”
But those are only some of the advantages Hays sees in green infrastructure. He says green infrastructure is more resilient against volatile weather events caused by global warming. With green infrastructure, storm water can be managed by systems that collect and actually utilize rainwater to harvest clean water. Even in a world without climate change, that storm water management also reduces water contamination by reducing sewer overflow caused by storm water floods, according to Hays.
However, green infrastructure is not without its problems. Hays acknowledges there are some problems with infrastructure systems that require more year-over-year maintenance: “The green and conventional approach is more cost effective over time, but the way you have to spend money is different. So we need to look at the way we finance infrastructure, and make sure we keep up with innovative technologies.”
Specifically, green infrastructure relies less on big capital investments and more on ongoing maintenance costs. Hays insists the green infrastructure saves money in the long term with efficiency and by making more use out of natural resources, and the Green For All report supports his claim. But it is more difficult to get a city or state legislator to support long-term funding than it is to get them to support big capital expenditures, Hays says.
Education is also a problem. To a lot of people, the green infrastructure on rooftops and other city areas might seem like “pocket parks,” says Hays. But these areas are nothing like parks; they are meant to absorb and collect rainwater. If the public isn’t educated properly, there could be some confusion as to why the supposed “pocket parks” are flooded so often. Providing that education is going to be another big challenge for public officials adopting green infrastructure, according to Hays.
So what, if anything, is Cincinnati doing to adopt these
technologies? In the past, city legislators have looked into rainwater
harvesting systems, but not much information is out there. On Thursday, CityBeat will talk to city officials to see how Cincinnati is moving forward.
(* David Krikorian is a businessman from Madeira who twice ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Jean Schmidt to represent Ohio's 2ndCongressional District. Schmidt is suing Krikorian for defamation, after he called her a “puppet” of special interests for accepting large amounts of cash from the Turkish government. Meanwhile, the Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating Schmidt’s receipt of legal assistance from a Turkish-American interest group.)
CityBeatrecently reported that an "odd coupling" of Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, a Republican, and State Rep. Dale Mallory, a Democrat, held a joint press conference publicly calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reverse its 2007 decision banning the pesticide Propoxur so that it can be used to combat bedbugs in apartments and homes.
A new report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has found that Ohio had the second worst toxic air pollution from power plants in the United States in 2010.
The report showed Ohio had more toxic air pollution from power plants than neighbors Pennsylvania and Indiana, but it had less toxic air pollution than Kentucky.
Linda Soros, spokesperson for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says the results are reflective of Ohio being a "coal state" and a "highly industrialized state."
The report had some positive news. It found that all air toxics emitted from power plants had dropped by 19 percent in 2010 compared to 2009 levels. The report partly attributes this drop to natural gas, which is cleaner than coal and has become cheaper than coal thanks to the massive fracking boom in Ohio and other states. Power plants have also been installing "state-of-the-art pollution controls" in anticipation of new regulations from the national EPA, bringing down air toxics further, according to the report.
Some of the new regulations will come from the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics standards, which were finalized in 2011. The standards will cut mercury air pollution by 79 percent from 2010 levels starting in 2015, according to the report. Sulfur dioxide will also be reduced by 63 percent under the new rules, and hydrochloric acid will be reduced by 95 percent.
The report says these cuts in toxic pollution will help deal with the many health problems caused by air pollution, including asthma, heart disease and chronic bronchitis.
The report used the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory — a national database for toxic emissions that are self-reported by industrial sources — for its analysis. The full report can be read here.
The report comes at a time when coal is in the middle of the national political arena. President Barack Obama has been running a radio spot in Ohio
praising the state for its growing coal use. The ad said Obama has always
supported the fabled "clean coal," much to the dismay of
environmentalists that typically side with the president over his
opponents. The ad also criticized opponent and then-Gov. Mitt Romney for
claiming a Massachusetts coal power plant "kills people" in 2003.
Monsanto, a large corporation with a self-described focus of “producing more, conserving more and improving lives," focuses on innovation in agricultural production and
claims to have “an eye on the future.” Included in their Sustainable Yield
Initiative of 2008 are the benefits of biotechnology, or the genetic
modification of farmed products. The March Against Monsanto will be held to
combat this process, as well as other practices like Monsanto’s efforts to
overturn European Union regulation on obligatory labeling. The march’s primary
organizer, Tami Monroe Canal, says she started the movement because she
was concerned for her daughters’ lives.
“I feel Monsanto threatens their generation’s health, fertility and longevity,” she explains. “I couldn’t sit by idly, waiting for someone else to do something.”
A precursor meeting announcement for
the Cincinnati march emphasizes that this movement is not a “fist waving”
event. Says the Cincinnati organizer Dana Haan, “It is a peaceful yet assertive demonstration in which we evoke public
awareness of what is happening with Monsanto and our food and the future of
Organizers throughout the United States are calling on participants to bring handouts that explain GMO processes in fact form, with “no slandering, no opinions or paper — just facts.” March participants are striving to prove that the genetic modification of foods is more detrimental than beneficial to individual health, citing studies conducted on GMOs that suggest the presence of pesticides in some modified products, as well as evidence that consumption of GMOs leads to cancer, infertility and birth defects.
With more than 100,000 likes on Facebook and an event list ranging from Boulder, Colo., to Cairo, Egypt, support for the March Against Monsanto has skyrocketed since its inception in February of this year. Advocating not only an end to GMOs but also various solutions for achieving this goal, March leaders assert that they will continue to expose Monsanto’s secrets, “taking to the streets to show the world and Monsanto that we won’t take these injustices quietly.”
Correction: This story originally gave the wrong location and time in the sub-headline.