The State of the Union: A Challenge to Ohio to Act on Climate in 2016 and Embrace Clean Energy, Once and For All

President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address last night, on the heels of a landmark year for climate change and public health protections. Among the many national and international successes he underscored is the significant progress the U.S. has made reducing the carbon pollution that fuels climate change and other harmful air pollutants with the Clean Power Plan.

The morning after such a hopeful address to our nation, I can't help but reflect on all that happened--both challenges and victories--as we worked to address climate change in 2015 in the Midwest states, particularly Ohio.

Last year an anti-clean energy legislative committee in Ohio chose to ignore hard data on the benefits of energy efficiency and renewables and pushed its own political agenda rather than sound policy. More wind energy businesses left the state in the wake of policies hostile to clean energy development. We lost another year of progress on energy efficiency and renewables standards that--if reinstated--could mean billions of dollars in energy bill savings for homeowners and businesses, and prevent serious health problems for thousands of Ohioans.

But there's a ray of light just beyond this dark cloud. Ohio's opportunities for economic, public health and environmental gains in the coming year dwarf the roadblocks of last year. There is so much to gain if we could only shift away from rhetoric and toward practical, smartly-crafted clean energy policy.

As a state that uses nearly 70% coal-fired electricity, this will be a critical year to double down on the transition that is already taking place in Ohio and across the country; to embrace cleaner energy sources and embrace economic prosperity and a healthier place for Ohioans to work and raise a family.

Here are a few energy priorities we'd like to see Ohio adopt in 2016:

Reinstate Clean Energy Standards

The first order of business is to reverse the ill-fated decision to freeze the clean energy standards. Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources like solar and wind are low-cost tools that can ramp up Ohio's economic stability and create healthier communities. Re-asserting Ohio's commitment to these increasingly low cost energy sources would give the state a much-needed economic boost and create jobs.

Ohio's energy efficiency programs saved consumers more than $1.5 billion over the last five years. And these savings are cost-effective; energy efficiency programs in Ohio yield a 2:1 return on investment and lower energy prices for everyone. Moreover, Ohio's utilities found there are still years of unharnessed potential for homeowners and businesses to save money on their bills through energy saving programs, just waiting to be captured. This means more dollars in Ohioans' wallets to spend on their families.

Similarly, investing in renewable energy can be done at low cost and reliably. In fact, this week Ohio's Public Utilities Commission--the entity responsible for ensuring affordable energy rates--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.

And we're not the only ones demanding the reinstatement of these effective policies. Last year, more than 70 local businesses and community leaders spoke at a series of six regional forums as part of Ohio's Energy Future Tour, focusing on the importance of robust energy efficiency and renewables standards to their businesses and lives. Over 500 Ohioans attended across the series, joining scores of wind and solar trade associations, environmental organizations, military personnel, government agencies, and public health and faith leaders. An additional 10,000 Ohioans signed a petition as part of the forums urging Governor Kasich to support clean energy, leaving little doubt that these policies should be allowed to kick back in without further delay.

Remove the Wind Setback Requirement

Ohio's treatment of wind projects of-late has been all over the board.

While the state expanded loopholes in existing law to greenlight large wind energy developments to power Amazon's new data centers in central Ohio, little has been done to remove barriers to other wind projects across the state. In 2014, an unfortunate property setback requirement (HB 483) effectively halted all other commercial-scale wind development. Luckily, in 2015 Republican state Reps. Toney Burkley and Tim Brown introduced HB 190 to ease some of this pain by giving local counties the power to decide for themselves how far wind turbines should be set back from property lines. Unfortunately, the legislative session closed last year with a hearing on HB 190 but no further action.

But we still have time. Ohio can bring back departed wind companies like NextEra, and attract a whole new crop of investor interest in the state, simply by moving on HB 190 and re-establishing Ohio as a great place to site and build renewable energy.

Embrace the Opportunities in the Clean Power Plan

Don't believe the naysayers: Ohio is well-positioned to affordably and reliably cut carbon emissions under the Clean Power Plan through the clean energy standards already at its disposal (though they're presently in limbo). And the state has the potential to modernize its electric grid and develop its economy in the process.

AEP--one of Ohio's (and the nation's) large electric utilities--agrees, recently calling the Clean Power Plan an "opportunity" which, if done wisely, can be a "catalyst for the transformation that's already occurring in our industry." This is no small statement: just last year the utility was supporting bills in Congress that--had they prevailed--would have seriously undermined the effectiveness of the CPP's pollution controls. AEP's recent shift and its announcements to further cut its reliance on coal and build new wind and solar in Ohio exemplify a larger transition across the utility industry and within multi-national businesses. Job-creators are embracing the Clean Power Plan, and so should Ohio.

Thankfully, the state is already rolling up its sleeves to develop a carbon 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 last year 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.

There is so much potential to build on this momentum in 2016, but we need strong leadership to get it done. These clean energy priorities are just the initial scaffolding for a package of policy goals that Ohio could be crafting. This is the year that we demand policies that truly lower energy bills, add jobs to the fast-growing clean energy sector, protect our natural resources, and improve the health of vulnerable citizens.

There's no time like the present.