Visit the southern Ohio town of Chillicothe during the Monday morning rush hour and you’ll get a glimpse of the economic woes plaguing the state. By 7 a.m., northbound traffic on U.S. 23, which runs just east of town toward the state’s capital, Columbus, is bumper-to-bumper. The droves of commuters are all making the trek of an hour or more for the same reason: There’s simply no work back home.
NRDC’s Ohio energy policy director, Dan Sawmiller, recently heard about the daily exodus of workers from Appalachian Ohio from the director of a tri-state advocacy group for construction workers. But news of the economic plight of the region doesn’t drag him down as much as it spurs him on. “It serves as one of my primary motivations,” he says. “I see the situation as a glaring opportunity, [and] renewables can be part of a solution.”
As in much of Appalachia, coal, which once drove substantial economic activity, is in swift decline in southern Ohio. Since Sawmiller began working in the clean energy sector in 2011, more coal-fired power plants have closed in Ohio than in any other state. Plants producing a whopping 16 gigawatts of electricity—enough to power about 11 million homes for a day—have either shut down or announced they’ll be retiring soon.
Not only must the state find new sources of energy—largely from cheaper natural gas and renewables—to fill that deficit, but its workers must also find new jobs to replace those that are lost when coal plants go idle. “It’s created a huge void for these communities,” Sawmiller says.
Since 2017, Sawmiller has been working at NRDC to solve some of those challenges by bringing large-scale solar electricity generation to the Buckeye State and building relationships with a wide range of stakeholders that go beyond the usual allies of a green economy. As a result of these efforts, Ohio—where the solar energy industry already employs twice as many workers as coal—appears primed for even bigger change.
The crux of the state’s renewable energy future is a set of proposed solar projects totaling 400 megawatts, announced by American Electric Power (AEP) Ohio last year. If built, they would represent the largest solar array in the state, boasting nearly 300 football fields’ worth of photovoltaic cells. They would also help to uplift Highland County, one of the areas of Appalachian Ohio hit hard by declining coal-related industries. The projects would create 4,000 jobs during the construction phase and 150 permanent positions in the solar supply chain after that.
Considering the forecast contribution to the local economy, it’s easy to see why the solar initiative is gaining coal country support, Sawmiller says. Last December, more than 160 people showed up to a meeting in Columbus of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), which must approve the AEP Ohio project before it can move forward. The crowd included labor union leaders, economic development professionals, religious leaders, and even pro-solar coal executives.
“I believe frankly that Columbus has ignored this part of the state for the last several years,” said Matt Evans, president of the Ohio-based Boich coal company, at the hearing. The solar developments, he said, are a way for lawmakers “to get some good news to Appalachia.”
That was another motivating moment for Sawmiller. “Here’s a coal guy basically saying, ‘Let’s throw our swords down, quit arguing about “me, me, me,” and look at the big picture,’” he says. “This is how it’s supposed to be done—diverse groups coming together to do what’s good for Ohio.”
At least that’s how Sawmiller has always done it—building common ground in the service of commonsense goals. Now one of Ohio’s most vocal champions of renewables, he didn’t start out that way. “Over time, I’ve come to see the light for how important this work is in terms of climate change and health, but that was never my primary motivator,” he says. He started, simply, in service of his fellow Ohioans.
Sawmiller grew up in northwest Ohio and went on to study at Bowling Green State University. But his education was sidelined by the start of the Iraq War. A combat engineer in Ohio’s Army National Guard, he was called to duty in 2004—just weeks after the birth of his son.
During the year he spent in Baghdad, Sawmiller was at the “front of the front of the line,” he says, as part of a convoy sweeping roads to clear them of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Called Task Force Iron Claw, his unit’s five armored trucks inched down the roads searching for anything that looked suspicious. Sawmiller sat atop a Humvee with a 50-caliber machine gun, watching for threats from behind. “Our vehicles were supposed to be bulletproof and bombproof,” he says, “but I can attest to the fact that that wasn’t always true.”
Sawmiller came back to Ohio about 16 months after he left, in 2005. Upon completing his degree in finance at Bowling Green, he landed a job as senior regulatory analyst and economist at the office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel. Days spent evaluating public utility filings, providing expert testimony, and analyzing data on the impact of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on residential consumers’ bills taught him all about clean energy. “I didn’t have any involvement in politics at the time,” Sawmiller says. “I approached the work analytically. I quickly learned the value that clean energy brought to Ohio’s consumers.”
With a deepening understanding of how transitioning away from fossil fuels could lower electricity bills, bring stable jobs, and reduce health care costs, Sawmiller played an integral role in the passage of a bill that established Ohio’s clean energy standards in 2008. As the bill made its way through the legislature, he worked behind the scenes to evaluate its impacts on residential customers and help the Consumers’ Counsel with testimony.
In 2011, the Sierra Club snagged Sawmiller for its Beyond Coal campaign, an initiative to move the state beyond its reliance on coal and support the often difficult process of transitioning to renewable energy. “On my first day, they said, ‘There’s no three-ring binder to help you figure this out.’ But that was motivating, too.” Sawmiller jumped in with both feet. In addition to his familiar analytical work, he gave media interviews, debated the issues on radio, lobbied Ohio’s legislature, and reached out to communities to talk to workers impacted by the transition.
Sawmiller had become Ohio’s clean energy guy. One of his most substantial wins at the Sierra Club was reaching a hard-fought agreement with AEP Ohio that required the retirement of three coal-fired power plants and the addition of 900 megawatts of renewable energy in Ohio by 2020. The latest proposed solar farms are the first step toward reaching that goal.
Like Sawmiller’s own path to clean energy advocacy, the campaign to build support for the AEP Ohio solar farm has focused on local needs—it’s all about Ohio first. He will always remember the day that Evans, the coal executive, explained that he was backing the project for strictly economic reasons. “It was a really strong lesson,” Sawmiller says. “You don’t have to be motivated by climate change to support the solutions. It’s really about the opportunity.”
Another aspect of the energy transition that draws broad support is the ability to put military veterans first in line for new solar energy jobs. “It was agreed all around,” Sawmiller says. Former military personnel now make up a significant 12 percent of Ohio’s clean energy sector, compared with their 8.5 percent share of the U.S. population.
Sawmiller knows from experience that the military is one of the country’s most diverse organizations. On duty, he met people from every walk of life, he says. He has also seen the difficulties that many veterans face when transitioning into the civilian workforce back home. “Energy is one area in which vets’ skills translate well, mentally and physically,” he says. “But it takes purposeful, meaningful engagement to bridge that gap and make those connections. We have to spend time reaching out to our military communities, involving them in this work.”
Sawmiller is currently working to support the Veterans Advanced Energy Summit, a chance for former military personnel to come together in Chicago this summer and learn about skills and new employment opportunities in the energy sector. And he is focused on active-duty military as well: Climate change will impact the armed forces more directly than many other parts of the workforce. Not only will conflict become more likely as temperatures rise around the world, but military bases themselves are already threatened by extreme storms and rising sea levels. “We’ll be calling on our military when these conflicts arise. It makes them a valuable ally in mitigation efforts,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sawmiller’s work continues on the AEP Ohio project, which has big hurdles to overcome. A majority of the five PUCO commissioners will need to vote yes to approve the new solar farms—a possibility that became less certain when Ohio’s new GOP governor, Michael DeWine, appointed two commissioners earlier this year.
Approval of the projects now hinge on the question of need. AEP Ohio must prove that there’s a need for additional solar in the state to justify charging customers for its construction, but “need” is undefined in Ohio law, leaving interpretation up to the PUCO. If the projects are built, Ohio’s utility customers will see their bills go up 28 cents per month in the short term—but AEP Ohio estimates it will ultimately save more than $200 million over a 20-year period. (That figure doesn’t include the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions relative to climate change or health, Sawmiller says.)
While the commission hears evidence from both sides, Sawmiller is focused on making his case on behalf of his fellow Ohioans. “There’s a need for economic development in Appalachia and a need for large-scale renewable projects to build out new industries. And without a long-term contract for developers from customers like AEP Ohio, these projects will be at risk.”
Luckily, the projects do have one overwhelming asset: the outspoken support of Sawmiller. And if there’s anyone capable of building bridges—and a solar energy farm—in Appalachian Ohio, it’s him.
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