Columbus Dispatch: Nuclear power bill raises too many questions

Columbus Dispatch

Backers of a bill that would bail out Ohio’s two nuclear power plants claim it is the comprehensive energy policy our state needs to move toward a lower-carbon future. If that were true, the nuclear bailout could be a palatable element of it.

As it is, House Bill 6 would wipe out Ohio’s primary means for boosting development of renewable energy and actually would open the door to subsidies for fossil-fueled plants. Supporters claim it provides an improved incentive system for clean energy development, but many questions remain on how that would work.

Without significant improvements, it will amount to a giant step backward for Ohio’s economy.

Sponsors acknowledge that the bill is complicated and say they expect it to be amended. It’ll have to be in order to win over many bailout skeptics and live up to its supporters’ claims.

The bill’s origins invite skepticism.

Like many of the nation’s aging nuclear plants, the Davis-Besse plant near Cleveland and the Perry plant near Toledo, both owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions, have been seeking state financial support for years. Ohio’s lawmakers had little interest two years ago, when a bailout bill died in the Republican-controlled House without a committee vote.

The return of Glenford Republican Larry Householder as House Speaker has changed all that. After winning election in 2016 to the seat he left more than a decade earlier, he began a campaign to recapture the speakership by supporting candidates loyal to him for seats in 2018. Many of those candidates won after defeating candidates loyal to then-speaker Ryan Smith in the May Republican primary.

FirstEnergy contributed more than $230,000 to Householder and to his supporters’ primary campaigns. One of those, now Rep. Jamie Callender, is a sponsor of HB 6.

The bill purports to be an impartial boost to cleaner energy because it would reward utilities of any sort for zero-emissions energy. A surcharge on electric bills — ranging from no more than $2.50 per month for residential customers to $2,500 for major industrial users — would create and fund something called the Ohio Clean Air Program. The program would pay utilities $9.25 for every megawatt hour of energy produced with zero carbon emissions.

While wind and solar energy are growing in Ohio, the two nuclear plants still account for the vast majority of zero carbon power in the state, so estimates are that they would claim about half of the $300 million the monthly fees would generate. That’s the bailout opponents object to.

FirstEnergy Solutions has said that without the cash infusion both plants will close by 2021. There are arguments in favor of tapping ratepayers to extend the plants’ life. Aside from the jobs and tax base they provide in their communities, there is some value in maintaining such a significant source of zero carbon energy.

Keeping the plants also could help preserve nuclear power as an option for Ohio’s future if the technology becomes cheaper and the problem of nuclear waste storage ever is resolved.

But FirstEnergy’s champions in the General Assembly shouldn’t be asking all Ohio ratepayers to swallow the bailout without a much stronger commitment to truly supporting the renewable energy development that could bring jobs and investment statewide.

HB 6 backers say the Clean Air Program and its zero-emission credits are open to wind and solar producers, but the bill eliminates funding to achieve Ohio’s Renewable Portfolio Standards — a requirement that, by 2027, utilities in the state must produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources. Backers say the standards haven’t worked well enough, but the claim is hardly credible given Republicans’ steady efforts to undermine them. From the time they were approved in 2008, think tanks supported by fossil fuel interests published studies claiming the mandate for renewables would kill Ohio jobs and shrink the economy. Those claims generally were rebutted by reports showing that renewables helped lower customers’ electric bills and generated tens of thousands of jobs.

A 2014 bill froze the mandates at their then-current level and created a study committee that eventually recommended doing away with them entirely. To his credit, former Gov. John Kasich vetoed two bills that would have done that, and the standards remain in place for now.

But investment in renewables in Ohio surely has been hurt by the uncertainty created by lawmakers’ hostility to the mandates. As bad or worse, in 2014 opponents of wind power passed a law that essentially shut down new wind development by greatly increasing the required distance between wind turbines and adjacent property lines.

Yet even against those headwinds, clean energy companies and construction projects added nearly 5,000 Ohio jobs in 2018, bringing the total to more than 112,000 — the third-highest in the Midwest and eighth in the U.S., according to a recent report by E2 and Clean Energy Trust, two nonprofit groups supporting clean energy entrepreneurs.

Imagine what Ohio could accomplish by actually supporting renewables.

HB 6 in its current form doesn’t do that. It mostly supports the status quo with the nuclear bailout and provisions that would allow natural gas and even coal plants to claim “clean power” funding if they reduce their emissions somewhat — the bill doesn’t define by how much.

Householder has put the bill on a fast track, as FirstEnergy Solutions has said it needs to know by midyear whether to produce nuclear fuel to operate beyond the plants’ scheduled closing dates.

But the bailout request presents an opportunity to leverage support for a clean energy future, and lawmakers shouldn’t be rushed into a law that would saddle Ohioans with the expenses of the past without providing a clean path to the future.

Columbus Dispatch

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