Welcome Aboard AEP! It's Great To See You (...Side With Clean Energy)

Efforts in Ohio to cut carbon emissions under the Clean Power Plan just picked up a new ally. This week American Electric Power (AEP)--one of the largest electric utilities in the country--announced it is parting ways with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential climate denial front group.

AEP joins 106 other corporations who have left the organization over the last few years, many of whom no longer wish to be associated with ALEC's well-publicized anti-clean energy tactics.

It's important to note AEP didn't treat this like one might treat a gym membership--i.e. dropping one and swapping it for the newer one with the fancier pool. Instead, the utility's stated reason was to focus on helping the state meet the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a very worthy goal.

And what's good for AEP, for Ohioans, and for the millions of customers the utility serves in 10 other states, is not so great for ALEC.

This is a huge blow for the organization that has directed significant time and resources toward its largely unsuccessful attempts to undermine the CPP. In fact, at a recent conference ALEC went so far as to instruct state legislators to engage in "guerrilla warfare" against US EPA and to bring about a "political tsunami" to block the CPP's pollution controls. Mind you, these are the very pollution controls that are critical to clean up our air, protect public health and drive the creation of thousands of jobs in every state through cleaner energy.

But ALEC's influence has taken a nosedive over the last few years. The organization has lost a number of high-profile members like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Royal Dutch Shell due to its misguided and increasingly unpopular climate positions. As they continue to try (and fail) to convince anyone who will listen that cleaning up dangerous carbon pollution is somehow a bad thing, more and more people and businesses are realizing their claims aren't true and that a move to increasingly cost-effective renewable energy is a good thing.

As my colleague Aliya Haq pointed out in her piece on AEP's departure from ALEC this week, the utility is far from a clean energy company. It still has many coal plants operating in several states, and contributes some of the highest levels of CO2 emissions from the power sector nationally. AEP was also the chair of ALEC's environmental task force--the committee that produces all of the council's anti-environment model bills. Not to mention the fact that AEP is currently pursuing a much-maligned proposal at Ohio's Public Utilities Commission to force consumers to buy generation from a handful of its aging, uneconomic coal plants. Ironically, it's the free market that Ohio joined 15 years ago that's pushing these units out as cheaper, more competitive natural gas, solar and wind come online.

But despite AEP's prior dealings--and perhaps in spite of its current "coal bailout" proposal--the utility has done an about-face on the CPP in the last year and appears to be working toward changing its image.

For example, just last year AEP received the then-draft carbon rules only lukewarmly. Last June, they went as far as to throw their weight behind yet another bill in Congress (Representative Ed Whitfield's HR 2042) that--had it prevailed--would have seriously undermined the effectiveness of the CPP's pollution controls.

Fast forward to November of this year, when AEP's CEO Nick Akins announced to a crowd at an Edison Electric Institute meeting that the utility now sees the CPP as an "opportunity" and, if done wisely, a "catalyst for the transformation that's already occurring in our industry" (spoiler alert: NRDC couldn't agree more).

And the utility is not just paying lip service to clean energy. As Tom Knox at Columbus Business First notes, just a decade ago coal made up 74% of AEP's fuel supply, but the utility is steadily changing its mix. It projects its coal use will fall to 51% next year, making way for increased amounts of natural gas and renewables. The utility also plans to augment its generation with some of the most ambitious energy efficiency programs in Ohio, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in electric bill savings to Ohioans in the five years since the programs began. AEP projects it's on course with these programs to help customers cost-effectively cut energy use in Ohio as much as 33% over the next 15 years.

This shift is great news for Ohioans and great news for climate action. AEP is Ohio's second biggest utility and their proactive efforts this year signal significant movement toward constructively engaging Ohio's agencies, which will be key to ensuring the state submits a strong carbon plan on time.

Increasingly, ALEC and its refusal to embrace the path forward is becoming a cautionary tale. Thankfully, AEP has realized this. While ALEC and other special interest groups are trying like mad to stop a moving train, AEP is getting on board with a growing number of partners to find solutions to our climate crisis and bring health and economic benefits to people at the same time.

This is an opportunity for Ohio, and the train is leaving the station.

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