Lawmakers, Regulators Leave it to 2016 to Answer Questions About Energy

Jan 4, 2016

Protesters outside Akron's FirstEnergy headquarters say the plan before the PUCO will force ratepayers to keep dirty coal plants burning.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

  State leaders started 2015 with several important issues to tackle in the energy industry. And heading into 2016, many of those questions remain unanswered. Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow reports on what’s coming in the year ahead.

The future of green energy in Ohio dangled all year as lawmakers discussed what should happen to the state’s policies that encourage the use of renewables.

The standards created in 2008 required utilities to use a certain amount of green energy while achieving a set amount of efficiency. Republican lawmakers voted to freeze the standards in 2014 while a commission spent 2015 reviewing them.

So after months of research and hearings, that commission finally decided to keep the freeze 

We're only just at the beginning of the march up what we're calling mandate mountain.

  indefinitely. Environmental advocates defended the standards and said they end up saving consumers money. But the committee co-chair, Republican Rep. Kristina Roegner of Hudson, claims the standards raised the average electric bill by $40 a year.

“We’re only just at the beginning of the march up what we’re calling mandate mountain. So … if those mandates were to increase, you could extrapolate that those extra costs in your utility bills, each and every one of you, would go up as well.”

Kasich pushes for some level of mandates
The commission’s report came in for big criticism, including from Gov. John Kasich. While he was on the campaign trail, Kasich’s office put out a statement calling an indefinite freeze “unacceptable.”

If the Legislature does nothing, the freeze will lift at the end of 2016.

A deep stall for fracking taxes
Also hanging in legislative limbo is a plan to increase the state’s tax on oil and gas, also known as the severance tax. Kasich, for the fourth time as governor, proposed raising the severance tax to take advantage of the state’s booming fracking industry.

Even before oil and gas prices started to plummet, the industry successfully lobbied for things to stay the way.

Republicans leaders took Kasich's severance tax increase out of the budget and -- as with the green energy issue – appointed a committee to study it. Senate President Keith Faber insists this wasn’t a stalling tactic.

No rush for resolution
“Make no mistake, there’s gonna be a solution to this problem and less one side think that they can drag it out or extend the ball, that’s not an option, because there will be a solution next time.”

But a few months later the report, which came out later than expected, had no legislative proposal or response to the governor’s plan. Faber said that's because there’s no economic reason to rush this issue.

On the PUCO front

If you don't bail us out, then we're going to shut it down and these people are going to lose their jobs.

  Akron-based FirstEnergy goes into 2016 one step closer to sealing what could be a multi-billion dollar deal that would have ratepayers finance one aging nuclear plant and several old coal plants. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio would have to approve the deal, which would result in customer bills increasing by a few dollars a month.

Dan Sawmiller from the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter says this deal is strictly to save failing coal plants.

“The company is simply asking the commission to bail them out. And if you don’t bail us out then we’re going to shut it down and these people are going to lose their jobs. To me that’s incredibly unfair to the people working in these plants.”

FirstEnergy says customers would see an initial spike in their bill but then, after a few years, they would see some credit coming back to their accounts.

The Sierra Club did strike a deal with AEP, but Sawmiller says there’s more of a compromise in that plan, with AEP promising to shut down three of its coal plants by 2030. Other environmental advocates, however, say the plan cuts AEP too much slack.

Lawmakers will likely spend 2016 working on the same issues they faced in 2015. The only difference is the pressure for reaching resolutions might be turned up. There’s the ticking clock on the green energy freeze and Kasich budget could, yet again, propose a severance tax increase.

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