Ohio and the rest of the planet need the Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear power plants to keep operating. The plants account for 90 percent of the state’s clean energy. Shutting down the two, as now planned for the end of 2021, runs counter to the urgent call from scientists for sharp reductions in carbon emissions the next dozen years to avoid more catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Then, there’s the scientific imperative of going carbon-free by 2050.
To keep operating, the plants require financial help, or recognition of how they serve the larger public interest. For now, they struggle to compete with abundant, cheap and carbon-emitting natural gas. Fortunately, state lawmakers appear ready to make another attempt at bolstering the finances of the plants.
One thing that has burdened the effort has been the presence of FirstEnergy. The Akron-based power company has spun off its generating subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, and thus Perry and Davis-Besse, too. Yet its shadow remains. Recall FirstEnergy championed deregulation, until the market took an unfavorable turn. It resisted the state energy efficiency and renewable energy standards. All of this invites the question: Why help the company or its former subsidiary now?
No doubt, that question resonated again last week as a federal bankruptcy judge rejected the reorganization plan for FirstEnergy Solutions. FES entered bankruptcy last year after separating from FirstEnergy. It was hoping to exit in early May. The judge put off the date in finding the plan “patently unconfirmable.”
Judge Alan Koschik arrived at his conclusion after a slew of interested parties raised objections, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and the bankruptcy court’s own U.S. Trustee. Add to the critical voices the persuasive work of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
This is a powerful consensus, and a leading concern raised is that the plan proves too generous to FirstEnergy, especially in allowing the company to avoid responsibility for the cleanup and decommissioning costs of the power plants. The objecting parties described a “scheme” and an abuse of the bankruptcy process.
FirstEnergy might argue that the nuclear power plants won’t be shut down if state lawmakers act. That prospect hardly allows for a bankruptcy plan that fails to cover adequately for other possibilities. As proposed, the plan could leave customers or taxpayers on the hook.
The judge made clear the plan failed to meet legal precedent. So FirstEnergy Solutions will try again. More, critics will continue to insist that Ohioans should not be asked to pay for FirstEnergy’s "failed business." Yet this isn’t just about FES or FirstEnergy. Ohioans would pay for clean energy, say, adding roughly $2.50 or $3 to their monthly bills to support the operation of plants that help to curb carbon emissions. Consider, too, the savings down the road in avoiding the damage mounting climate change can inflict.
In that way, state lawmakers have the task not of doing the bidding of FirstEnergy or FirstEnergy Solutions but of serving Ohioans as a whole. That involves taking steps to encourage energy efficiency and the expanded use of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. It also includes preserving the presence of nuclear power and, in doing so, advancing the interests of Ohioans.
There really isn’t a kilowatt of clean power to spare, in particular, the nuclear variety, which already generates most of the country’s carbon-free power, or twice as much as all renewable sources combined, excluding hydropower. That isn’t something to let slip, no matter how much or how many FirstEnergy may displease.