The State of Clean Energy in Ohio: Thaw the Freeze, Create Well-Paying Jobs, and Other "No Regrets" Strategies

As Governor John Kasich prepares to make his annual "State of the State" address in Ohio this week, I can't help but wonder: will energy policy finally make the cut? With the national media eye turned to the Buckeye State these days, we hope that a focused policy on clean energy will be center stage for Kasich's remarks.

After all, the health of Ohioans, and the economic and environmental well-being of the state are at stake.

In recent years, Ohio's decision-makers have unfortunately turned away from increasingly low-cost wind and solar power, not to mention energy efficiency, which is widely regarded the cheapest energy source.

  • Two years ago this month the state dealt a dual blow to clean energy when it froze Ohio's renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, alongside a bill that essentially zoned commercial-scale wind development out of Ohio.
  • Last year an Ohio anti-clean energy legislative committee chose to ignore hard data on the benefits of energy efficiency and renewables and pushed its own political agenda rather than sound policy.
  • In recent months, more wind energy businesses left the state and we lost another year of progress on clean energy standards that—if reinstated—could mean billions of dollars in energy bill savings for homeowners and businesses.
  • And just this last week Ohio's utility regulatory commission approved controversial proposals from FirstEnergy and AEP to prop up their uneconomic coal and nuclear plants to the tune of billions of dollars in new costs to consumers, delaying public health protections and stifling competition and the free market ideals that Ohio's lawmakers claim to so closely adhere.

But even now, after clean energy has been knocked down again and again in Ohio, the unstoppable market forces that are driving job creators across the country to turn away from uneconomic fossil sources toward low-cost renewable energy continue to prevail.

You can't stop progress, and in fact, Ohio should welcome it with open arms.

Ohio's opportunities for economic, public health and environmental gains in the coming year dwarf the roadblocks of the last two years. There is so much to gain if we could only shift away from rhetoric and toward practical, smartly-crafted clean energy policy.

Here are a few "no-regrets" steps that we'd like to see Governor Kasich prioritize in 2016, seizing these opportunities to secure Ohio's clean energy future:

Restore Ohio's clean energy policy, restore the economy

Energy efficiency and renewable energy like solar and wind can ramp up Ohio's economic stability and create healthier communities. Re-asserting Ohio's commitment to these clean energy tools would give the state a much-needed economic boost and create more jobs.

Ohio's energy efficiency programs have saved consumers more than $1.5 billion over the last five years. And these savings are extremely cost-effective; utilities report that energy efficiency yields a 2:1 return on investment. This is about one-eighth of the 14 cents per kWh that Ohio's utilities charge homeowners for power from traditional sources—meaning more dollars in Ohioans' wallets to spend on their families.

The costs of wind and solar energy have declined by more than 60 percent in the past few years. In fact, Ohio's Public Utilities Commission--the entity responsible for ensuring affordable energy rates—recently concluded that meeting Ohio's renewable energy standard is even cheaper than previously thought. The Department of Energy recently came to a similar conclusion, reporting that renewable energy standards produced nationwide provide benefits worth more than seven times their costs in 2013. This means more money in Ohio's budget to reinvest in other economic initiatives.

And clean energy is an economic boon for Ohio. A new report released last month from Ohio Advanced Energy Economy and NRDC affiliate Environmental Entrepreneurs estimates that Ohio is now home to over 100,000 clean energy jobs, many in the energy efficiency industry. A large proportion of these jobs are also devoted to manufacturing solar and wind components, many of which are sent out of state to be used in clean energy projects across the nation and the globe. Imagine the growth opportunities for Ohio if we had a more stable policy environment that fostered renewable energy projects right within the state's own borders.

Reinstating Ohio's clean energy standards would send a critical signal to job creators that Ohio is a great place to do business and that there is long-term staying power in the clean tech industry. Removing the current barrier to wind development would also attract a whole new crop of investor interest in the state.

Prioritize healthy families and attract job-creators by addressing climate change

The biggest source of pollution driving climate change comes from power plants—emitting 40 percent of our nation's carbon. Dirty, polluted air worsens asthma in children, and leaves people coughing and missing work. Unfortunately, Ohio's power sector currently emits the nation's 4th largest carbon pollution plume, with four cities in Ohio ranking amongst the 20 most polluted in the country.

Thankfully, Ohio has a path to address this currently-unabated pollution through the Clean Power Plan—our nation's first-ever limits on carbon pollution from the power sector.

While the Clean Power Plan is currently stayed pending litigation, that doesn't mean that Ohio should slow down its progress toward cutting carbon emissions. Prior to the stay order, Ohio was rolling up its sleeves to develop an emissions plan that works best for Ohio's own unique energy mix and economic needs. While the Ohio Attorney General joined a multi-state lawsuit challenging the legality of the carbon rule, Ohio EPA is heading down a second, more constructive path to develop a state plan and has even made clear that energy efficiency and renewable energy are "key to a low-cost strategy" to get the state there.

It is still as urgent as ever that we protect public health and address the economic and environmental impacts of carbon pollution from one of the nation's biggest sources of emissions. And the state should also take cues from where the market is heading—towards increasingly cheap clean energy opportunities. Using efficiency and renewables to cut emissions in Ohio holds huge economic potential, particularly if clean energy projects are built right inside the state borders.

As evidenced by the recent clean jobs report, Ohio currently enjoys a competitive advantage as a regional clean energy leader. As neighboring states like Pennsylvania move forward on the Clean Power Plan despite the stay, Ohio's lawmakers should do everything in their power to hold onto this edge.

The value of embracing carbon emissions reductions at a time when more and more businesses are focusing on sustainability cannot be overstated. This week, scores of multi-national corporations filed legal briefs in federal court supporting the Clean Power Plan, including Amazon and other tech giants that are increasingly looking to states like Ohio to expand their data center network.

Moving forward on a strong carbon emissions plan is a sure-fire way to attract—and keep—these kinds of businesses in Ohio.

The Path Forward

There is so much potential to build on Ohio's momentum in 2016, but we need strong leadership to get it done.

Governor Kasich, you have repeatedly called continued suspension of Ohio's clean energy standards "unacceptable."

We hope you turn this statement into action and apply that same resolve this year to ensuring that Ohio has the right policies in place to truly lower energy bills, add jobs to the fast-growing clean energy sector, protect our natural resources, and improve the health of vulnerable citizens.

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