Ohio Must Push Forward Despite EPA’s Clean Power Plan Repeal

Ohio is ground zero for a transition that has been underway in the electric sector for years—an unstoppable shift from a high-pollution, fossil-fueled past to a safer, cleaner-powered future.
Cleveland Wind Turbine
Credit: Flickr, Creative Commons

Ohio is ground zero for a transition that has been underway in the electric sector for years—an unstoppable shift from a high-pollution, fossil-fueled past to a safer, cleaner-powered future.

Coal-fired power once dominated Ohio’s electric generation mix, but coal (and for that matter—nuclear) can no longer compete in today’s landscape of rock-bottom natural gas prices and abundant (and increasingly cheap) wind, solar and energy efficiency.

And while market forces and technological advances are driving this new reality, the Clean Power Plan (CPP) was an opportuntity to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. The CPP has been all about building momentum for this shift and giving states like Ohio the tools to use pollution reduction to jumpstart their economies all while protecting public health and the environment.

Unfortunately, this momentum is now under threat with the announcement from Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to eliminate the Clean Power Plan.

Clean Power Plan “Repeal”—What Does It Mean?

This week EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan—the biggest step the U.S. has ever taken to combat climate change.

And now there’s no clear replacement coming from EPA.

The CPP was established under President Obama and focused on existing power plants, the largest source of carbon emissions in our country. Placing carbon emission limits on the power sector was our number one protection from the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change.

Sadly, EPA has abandoned the climate progress we would have seen under the CPP, threatening public health and rejecting a critical tool to spur the clean energy economic sector in our states.

EPA’s proposal seeks to “repeal”  the Obama-era version of the CPP, driving a stake through the heart of federal action on climate change. It is unclear whether EPA will eventually seek to replace the rule. But if it does, that replacement is likely to be just a shadow of its former self, so weakened and watered down that it will do nothing to meaningfully tackle air pollution.

In fact, a study from Harvard and Syracuse Universities released just hours after Pruitt’s announcement warned that, compared to just doing nothing, replacing the CPP with a narrower option would actually cause coal plants to run more, increasing carbon emissions and air pollution. Unfortunately, the study found that Ohio will be among the hardest hit from such a weak CPP replacement—the state will be a hot spot for increased air pollution and the public health impacts that follow.

As my colleague David Doniger put it: “we had a Clean Power Plan. What we’re getting is a Dirty Power Plan.”

Map of Air Impacts from Weakened Clean Power Plan
Credit: Syracuse and Harvard Universities

The Clean Energy Landscape for Ohio

What this means for Ohio is that it is more critical than ever that the state gets it right when it comes to clean energy policy, to make sure we keep moving forward to cut carbon emissions on the ground while federal climate progress lags behind.

Thankfully, this progress in the state is already underway.

Just last month Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) reported that Ohio is home to more than 100,000 clean energy jobs, many in energy efficiency. Ohio is also second in the Midwest for renewable energy jobs. Examples of that leadership are in evidence all across the state, as utilities and third party companies embark on solar and wind projects to satisfy increasing customer interest in meeting energy demand from clean sources.

And nowhere is that demand more clear than amongst large and multi-national corporations.

In Ohio corporate commitment to clean energy has been yielding announcement, after announcement of new renewables projects; from Facebook’s plan to build a $750 million data center in central Ohio, powered exclusively by renewables; to General Motors’ announcement last month to power four of its Ohio plants with 100% clean energy by the end of 2018.

Ohio’s Renewable Portfolio Standard will undoubtedly help make the state more attractive to businesses looking for renewable energy sources.

To be sure, state policy factors heavily into where today’s corporations choose to locate their operations. As Facebook representatives noted after the Ohio data center announcement, “The availability of renewable energy sources, including wind, solar and hydro, was critical to the decision.”

This signals both an opportunity for Ohio, but also a critical inflection point.

To capitalize on this wave of consumer and large corporate interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and to cut carbon emissions in the coming years in the face of waning federal momentum, the state needs to get serious about its own, homegrown energy policy. Some bright spots emerge, such as last January’s reinstatement of Ohio’s wildly effective clean energy standards, which followed Governor Kasich’s December veto of a bill that would have removed those standards entirely.

But in other areas the state falls woefully behind.

Last month’s E2 jobs report found that despite Ohio’s leadership in the region on renewables, the state has seen slower growth in this area than several of its neighbors. One factor contributing to this stagnancy is the state’s anti-business setback requirements enacted three years ago which nearly tripled the setback distance for wind turbines from property lines, effectively halting all commercial-scale wind projects in the state.

While efforts are underway to fix this damaging over-regulation of the wind industry (a Republican-led bill was introduced last month in the Ohio Senate), time is running out to lock into place state policies that will attract corporate investment in today’s highly competitive environment.

What Comes Next?

Further complicating Ohio’s progress on clean energy in the coming years is a wave of utility pressure to bail out legacy generation that is simply too costly to operate and is no longer competitive in the wholesale electric markets in which Ohio participates.

The trajectory of two bills—FirstEnergy’s “Zero Emissions Nuclear” legislation, and a second bill to bail out a pair of coal plants (one of which is in Indiana) co-owned by some of the largest utilities in the state—will set the table for Ohio’s place in this clean energy debate.

The question remains: Will Ohio gracefully move past its dependence on yesterday’s energy sources and make itself a player in this new economy, or will it stumble?

This amounts to a pretty sharp message to Ohio to seize the opportunity that the CPP presented when it was first finalized in 2015. Even now, with that Obama-era policy in the balance, Ohio can still make progress on clean energy in this Trump era.

This is Ohio’s chance to address climate change at home, and transform its economy in the process. There is no time to waste.

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