Rob Nichols offered the kindest assessment of Senate Bill 310, the two-year freeze in the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards. The governor’s press secretary spun: “It’s naive … to think that government could create that system perfectly the first time and never have to check back to see if everything’s OK.”
Fair enough, except that Gov. John Kasich did lead such an effort in 2011, or three years into the standards. He did so as part of his own energy summit. The following year, state lawmakers approved legislation expanding and reaffirming the standards.
Environmental groups eagerly remind the governor about his gushing when he signed the bill in 2012: “This is a piece of legislation that will last 100 years in Ohio. There’s no doubt in my mind.” Not a drop, until there is, evidently.
And since he signed Senate Bill 310 earlier this month? He has been seeking to recover ground, arguing the result could have been worse. Many of his fellow Republicans in command of the legislature wanted a permanent freeze.
The governor has restated his support for alternative energy sources. He told reporters: “I believe in renewables. I believe in the wind and the solar. I believe in energy efficiency. You just have to have targets … that are realistic.”
So a test of his leadership has emerged, assuming he wins a second term in November. Senate Bill 310 calls for an Energy Mandates Study Committee, six state senators, six House members, and the chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission as a non-voting member. The panel has until the end of September 2015 to report its findings and recommendations.
Will the governor prove true to his word by pressing for a full, open and credible “check back”?
Such a stance is needed. Republican lawmakers added provisions fueling the view that they already have concluded: What’s to study?
Among other things, they made compliance much easier for power companies. They removed a mandate for generating alternative energy sources within the state. In a separate bill, they altered the setback requirement for wind turbines — without hearings or testimony — putting in jeopardy the industry’s place in the state.
What the study committee could use is an independent contribution, experts helping lawmakers see the complete picture. The governor must insist on such a process.
FirstEnergy and the other power companies advocating the freeze have yet to defend their position in a legislative hearing, to show how the bill protects consumers from rising costs due to the efficiency standards. So much of the evidence points the other way. Utilities have reported the savings from efficiency plans far exceeding the costs.
The moment was embarrassing: Just as the state stepped back from its renewable and efficiency standards, the federal Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its proposed rules for reducing greenhouse emissions from power plants.
What did analysts quickly point out? States would have flexibility in devising their own plans. In Ohio, meeting the renewable and efficiency standards, reducing electricity use 22 percent by 2025 along with cleaner alternatives supplying 25 percent of the state’s power, would go a long way toward complying with the federal mandate.
Now, even with a temporary freeze, the job will be tougher.
Those pushing for Senate Bill 310 argued that the changing landscape of the power industry required a breather. The study committee may be surprised to learn how much things are changing. Abundant natural gas is one part. Solar and wind power have leaped forward in recent years. As Michael Grunwald recently reported in Time, the Energy Information Administration projected in 2009 that it would take two decades for wind capacity to reach 40 gigawatts in this country. It has passed 60 gigawatts.
Solar and wind still produce less than 6 percent of the country’s power supply. Yet as their footprint expands, prices fall, even, lately, into the competitive range.
More, as Grunwald explained, the power industry is moving toward a less centralized model. Google, Walmart and other investors are intrigued by the potential of rooftop solar installation, homes and businesses breaking away from the traditional grid. Walmart someday selling electricity, too?
Add such technologies as allowing consumers to monitor more closely their electricity use, and you see why big utilities may be rattled, even pine for regulation. Of course, power companies have a large and indispensable role. Their needs must be addressed. Yet states also must embrace innovation, in the form of efficiency and cleaner energy sources, savings for consumers and friendly to the climate.
In economically challenged Ohio, there always is the factor of jobs. Here is a growing sector of the state economy, 400 businesses, 25,000 workers, and counting — if the governor and the study committee do the right thing.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.