By Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network
A bill for cutting carbon emissions calls for equity in job training and transition programs, an office of energy justice, increased oversight, and curbs on utility influence over regulators.
Ohio Democratic lawmakers plan to emphasize potential economic benefits as they try to persuade Republican colleagues to support an ambitious new bill aimed at pushing the state to 100% clean energy by 2050.
Reps. Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland, and Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, previewed the Energy Jobs and Justice Act (HB 429) at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center on Tuesday. Ten other Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.
“We’re at an inflection point — not just in Ohio but globally — as we seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are wreaking havoc on our global environment and our Ohio environment,” Weinstein said.
Among other things, the 265-page bill calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity by 2030, compared to a 2005 baseline. That target would increase to 100% by 2050. The bill would also set an energy waste reduction goal of 22% by the end of 2030.
The bill aims to level the playing field for renewables to compete against fossil fuels. Among other things, it would fix the property line setbacks for wind farm turbines that were tripled in 2014. There would be more flexible options for community solar and virtual net metering. And steps for grid modernization would improve reliability and efficiency.
Energy justice and equity
Equity concerns drive the need for clean energy and must play a key role in the transition, Howse and others stressed.
“We must focus our efforts on environmental justice,” Howse said. In particular, “poor air quality disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, as well as communities with low income.” Those groups also feel the most stress from high electricity prices, she added.
HB 429 calls for an Office of Energy Justice, whose director would report to the governor. Among other things, the office would make sure decisions by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio are guided by energy justice when it sets rates and deals with other issues relating to existing, retiring or closed energy facilities. The Ohio Power Siting Board also would have to consider energy justice impacts in its rulings.
HB 429 calls for job training and economic development as well, with an emphasis on jobs in clean energy and grid modernization. “These are huge job creators,” Weinstein said. “We just need to create the underlying conditions that can allow those jobs to grow.”
Training programs would give priority to people who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, who have historically faced barriers to good jobs. Other groups with priority for job training under the bill include young people aging out of foster care and people reentering the workforce from incarceration. Additional provisions aim to help minority clean energy businesses get on their feet, with low-interest loans, coaching and some grants.
Similar to recent legislation passed in Illinois, the bill aims to help communities that have been dependent on fossil fuels as well. Areas where coal plants have shut down “have borne the brunt of both producing our electricity and suffering the impacts of pollution,” Howse said.
“The Energy Jobs and Justice Act may very well be one of the best expressions of energy justice in the region,” said SeMia Bray, a co-facilitator for Black Environmental Leaders in Cleveland. “This legislation serves as a logical step in making clean energy work for all Ohioans and creating systems that deliver support, call[ing] attention to areas where large gaps in access and equity persist, and creating new policies and practices that are needed to improve these outcomes.”
Accountability and reform
HB 429 is especially timely in the wake of the ongoing scandal involving former House Speaker Larry Householder and others in an alleged $60 million corruption scheme, primarily funded by FirstEnergy and affiliates, to elect Householder-friendly legislators, pass House Bill 6 and block a voter referendum on it. The 2019 law provided subsidies for two nuclear plants and two old coal plants, propped up utility revenues, and gutted Ohio’s clean energy standards.
HB 6 was “the world’s worst policy, with ulterior motives,” Weinstein said, noting that Ohioans still pay about $10,000 per hour for the coal subsidies. “After an act of such unprecedented corruption, we need equally unprecedented legislation in Ohio to get us back on track and to meet our clean energy goals.”
Among other things, HB 429 would expand regulators’ authority to audit and investigate utilities that may have engaged in malfeasance. In theory, that authority could allow for more thorough investigations than the state’s public utilities commission has undertaken so far relating to FirstEnergy and HB 6. The commission has been criticized for taking a restrictive, piecemeal approach. And a recent corporate separation audit deemed multiple violations to be only “minor.” Yet those practices arguably made it easier for company personnel to funnel money to entities for the alleged corruption scheme.
Additional reforms would raise the bar before the utilities commission can bless settlements with only some parties to a proceeding. Critics such as Sen. Mark Romanchuk, R-Ontario, have said current practice allows settlements that favor utilities and sweetheart deals with certain industrial customers, at the expense of consumers and the public interest. In two 2016 rulings involving FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, the commission initially OKed partial settlements for coal and nuclear plant bailouts, which were then challenged by federal regulators.
HB 429 also calls for refunds if utility charges are later held unlawful. The reform would avoid situations such as those faced by customers of AEP and FirstEnergy, where the utilities collected millions in unlawful charges from consumers, but never had to pay the money back. Other bill provisions would tighten the standards for electric security plans and decoupling. And utilities wouldn’t be able to swap out rate plans if they don’t like regulators’ modifications.
An uphill climb?
The bill will face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which has passed multiple laws making it harder to site renewable energy and gutting the state’s clean energy standards. Yet Weinstein and Howse are optimistic.
“We are in a relationship business,” Howse said, stressing the economic upsides of jobs in renewable energy and grid modernization. Indeed, most of the rhetoric around fossil fuels has focused on job protection, she noted.
“How are you going to protect a job that’s not there?” Howse asked. “That’s just reality. And it would be irresponsible for us as a government not to partner” to move ahead.
“I think there’s an opportunity in the wake of HB 6 to take a new fresh look at how to essentially do energy policy here,” Weinstein said. Bipartisan bills remain pending in the legislature to completely repeal that 2019 law, he noted. “I strongly believe there is bipartisan support to move forward and take that next step.”
“The probability that it won’t pass is just as possible as the probability that it can,” Bray said. “So let’s try and see where we end up.”
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