Midwest Renewables Surge Forward: But Where Is Ohio?

Ohio appears to be earning the dubious distinction of being dead-last among its neighbors in the race to transition its power generation to cleaner sources.
Credit: Clean Jobs Midwest, Environmental Entrepreneurs

The renewable energy boom that has been gaining momentum over the last few years was confirmed by new data released this month showing that wind and solar generation has nearly doubled in the U.S. over the last decade. Clean energy now provides 17.6 percent of our nation’s electric power.


This impressive trend is also demonstrated in the Midwest. A surge of wind and solar development has taken place in our region since 2008, around the time (uncoincidentally) when most states were enacting renewable portfolio standards. Collectively, wind and solar in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa and Ohio have grown over the last decade to generate nearly 86 GWh of power as of 2018—delivering clean energy to millions of homes and businesses across the region. (Source: Energy Information Administration).


The renewable energy trend is particularly important at a time of growing public awareness of both the need for immediate and bold action to mitigate climate change, and for an embrace of policies at the state-level that commit to ambitious investments in clean energy. Similarly, there is a growing recognition that addressing climate is an opportunity—rather than an impediment—that promises to revitalize sluggish economic prospects in many states and put more people to work in the clean energy economy.


But that economic opportunity is only available to the states that have the foresight to seize it.


While a number of factors are driving renewables growth in the Midwest, policy action is one of the most critical. Consumer demand and other market forces have caused a precipitous drop in wind and solar costs in recent years (a recent study from Energy Innovation confirms that building new renewables is actually cheaper now than simply continuing to run existing coal plants, including in the Midwest). But renewable energy is picking up the most steam in states that are taking definitive policy action to ensure that wind and solar (and not natural gas-fired power) are available to fill the gap left behind from the waning era of coal-intensive power generation.


Unfortunately, though, Ohio is not one of those states. The state has been fallow ground for renewable energy development in the last few years, lagging behind its neighbors. In fact, Ohio appears to be earning the dubious distinction of being dead-last in the race to transition its power generation to cleaner sources.


So, why is this happening, and what can the Buckeye State do to get back on track?


The Growth of Renewables and Climate Leadership in the Midwest



While the Midwest historically has been intensely reliant on polluting fossil fuels, much of the region is steadily moving away from its carbon-intensive legacy and focusing more and more on putting the right policies in place that will attract significant wind and solar investment.


In Illinois, for example, the state’s sweeping clean energy bill of 2016—signed into law by a Republican governor—is transforming the energy landscape with an ambitious focus on wind and solar power investments (up to $15 billion in projected development) to replace the state’s shrinking coal fleet. As of 2018, Illinois had an installed wind capacity of over 4,000 MW—producing enough power for nearly 1.5 million homes. Illinois is also experiencing a distributed solar boom, and is leading the region in community solar and low-income solar PV programs, opening up the promise of solar power to communities that haven’t historically had as much opportunity to directly access the benefits of renewables.


In Kansas and Iowa, wind development has dominated, accounting for over 30 percent of each state’s electricity production. In Missouri, while wind currently produces less than four percent of the state’s overall power mix, planned investments are ramping up to levels that will soon rival the wind generation behemoth that is Texas. Amongst a slew of utility and corporate purchaser commitments to wind and solar, most notable is Ameren Missouri—one of the most coal-reliant utilities in the country—which recently announced a nine-fold increase of wind in its generation portfolio. All told over the next few years, the state’s largest utilities will be adding upwards of 2,000 MW of wind to the state’s energy mix.


Similar trends are emerging in Michigan and Minnesota, where utilities like DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, and Xcel Energy, are making industry-leading commitments to decarbonize their power fleets. In both states, coal generation has been whittled down to just over one-third of the energy mix, with wind and solar gaining ground. In Michigan, Consumers Energy is in the process of seeking approval for a historic plan to move away from coal entirely for that utility’s service territory. Consumers plans to replace the gap with massive investments in renewables projects, including 550 MW of wind and 5,000 MW of solar over the next few decades.


In Minnesota, the state is building on its years of progress in harnessing wind power (reaching nearly 18 percent of the state’s generation mix in 2018), with a more recent focus on solar generation. While solar development is still in the single digits across the Midwest (as a % of overall generation), Minnesota is in the lead on installed solar capacity and, similar to Illinois, is on the cusp of its own solar boom. Solar energy in the state increased by more than 80 percent in 2017, due largely to a new solar garden program that allows consumers to purchase solar power without putting arrays on their own rooftops.


Not to be outdone, Wisconsin is also making inroads with renewables development, having seen a 12.8 percent uptick in installed wind and solar generation between 2017 and 2018. Even more impressive is what is planned in Wisconsin; the state has enough solar projects in the pipeline to soon rival Minnesota.


These exciting developments in much of the region have been spurred by policy action at the legislative level--the RPS reform in the Illinois’ 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act; the 25 percent by 2025 RPS in Minnesota, which added an additional 1.5 percent requirement for solar a few years back; the 15 percent by 2021 RPS in Michigan.


And in recent months, we are seeing a future path for even deeper progress come into focus as a new crop of Midwest Governors take the reins on climate and clean energy leadership. In Illinois, a diverse coalition of businesses, labor, consumer and environmental justice groups, and the environmental community introduced an ambitious plan—the Clean Energy Jobs Act—to put into action Governor J.B. Pritzker’s commitment to reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The plan also includes critical energy efficiency, transportation electrification and economic development programs to deeply decarbonize and jumpstart Illinois’ economy. Earlier this month, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers proposed in his budget to decarbonize the state’s electricity supply by 2050, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz on Monday released his own call for 100 percent carbon-free power. Adding to this flurry of activity, over the last few months Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed her state onto the U.S. Climate Alliance, committing to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, as did the governors of Illinois and Wisconsin. As Minnesota Governor Walz noted during his 100 percent carbon-free announcement (Minnesota is already a U.S. Climate Alliance signatory), “Climate change is an existential threat. We must take immediate action. If Washington won’t lead, Minnesota will.”


This building momentum in the Midwest is a stunning reminder that states—even in a historically coal-dependent region—can address climate change and build their economies at the same time. Indeed, the growing focus on clean energy has been a boon to the Midwest economy, with nearly 715,000 Midwesterners employed in renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs.


Ohio Falling Behind—What is the Path Back?


Amidst all of this exciting progress in our region, Ohio’s numbers unfortunately paint a decidedly different picture—one of relative stagnation on wind and solar development. Ironically, Ohio has led the region in carbon emissions reductions from its power sector over the last decade, but is placing dead-last in the region for renewables in its overall generation profile (barely cracking 2 percent for wind generation). Ohio’s emissions reductions reflect the steep decline of coal-fired power in that state, progress that will soon grind to a halt if the state does not act quickly on renewable energy policy. Unfortunately, natural gas-fired power plants—not renewables—are rapidly filling the yawning gap left behind by coal. While natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, if left uncontrolled it is still a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions (from extraction, all the way through power production).

Ohio, its economy and its people, simply cannot afford to trade one all-in energy source (for the last century, coal) for another (natural gas).

But what will it take to have a serious, comprehensive discussion of Ohio’s clean energy future, one that does not double down on the fossil fuel-heavy legacy which the state is finding so challenging to dig itself out of?

Unfortunately, Ohio’s growing status as a clean energy laggard in the Midwest is not surprising, given that policymakers in the state have been locked in a 6+ year battle over the direction of the state’s energy policy. The renewables industry has sustained one blow after another. In 2014, state lawmakers slipped into the budget bill the nation’s most restrictive property setback requirements for wind, which has proven to be a definitive barrier to tapping the large-scale development promise across much of Ohio. Similarly, the General Assembly has attempted to repeal the state’s wildly successful and cost-effective renewable energy and energy efficiency standards five times over so many years. Thus, not only has Ohio suffered from a lack of progress on its renewable energy policies, lawmakers have taken deliberate action to halt wind and solar at every turn.

This has sent a clear message to the renewable energy community writ large—Ohio is simply not open for business.

It is important to note that some bright spots have emerged with individual wind and solar projects. For example, AEP Ohio is proposing to build the largest solar project in the state’s history in Appalachia, more than doubling installed solar capacity and promising to bring much-needed economic development to coal country. Indeed, a cadre of solar developers are looking at southern and southwestern Ohio, which indicates the economic potential of clean energy for that part of the state if only the right supportive policies were in place. But the industry is just barely holding on. A look at Ohio’s clean energy jobs numbers in the annual Environmental Entrepreneurs Clean Jobs Midwest roundup paints a vivid picture of lingering investor interest, but lukewarm progress, as the state’s 100,000+ clean energy jobs (largely attributed to the energy efficiency industry) slowly decline. In recent years, the state has failed to add new wind energy jobs and has even experienced an overall reduction in the number of Ohioans employed in solar energy.

To add insult to injury, a nuclear bailout bill appears to be on the horizon (again) for the state. Ohio lawmakers are expected to introduce a bill very soon aimed at bailing out First Energy Solutions’ two nuclear power plants—Davis Besse and Perry—that sit along Lake Erie on Ohio’s north shore. Early rumors signal a wolf in sheep’s clothing—in particular, hollow claims from the bill’s proponents that preserving the state’s nuclear units will also guarantee zero-carbon generation. But if recent activity in the Ohio Statehouse continues, the impending bill will likely offer little in the way of a true decarbonization plan for Ohio, failing to offer a real vision for transitioning the state to the high renewables, low-carbon vision that so many of Ohio’s neighbors are already acting on.

On the eve of the introduction of this legislation, it remains unclear whether lawmakers will be willing to have a clear-eyed conversation about Ohio’s energy future, and whether they will have the courage to take bold action and deliberately move the state past its history of reliance on fossil fuel-fired power.

The time is now to have this discussion. Ohio’s neighbors are moving forward in exciting new directions, seizing the wave of clean energy economic opportunity and confronting the pressing need to act on climate.

The question is, will Ohio’s new leaders in the statehouse and in the Governor’s office take this much-needed action and make up for lost time? Or will they allow the Buckeye state to be left behind as the rest of the Midwest states capitalize on the economic promise of wind and solar and do their part to address climate change?