Ohio Governor John Kasich on Friday signed legislation freezing the state's laws requiring utilities to use renewable power and help customers use less electricity.
John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer
Ohio renewable energy and efficiency rules frozen for two years as Gov. John Kasich signs legislation
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Gov. John Kasich on Friday signed into law -- without comment -- controversial legislation that freezes state rules requiring electric utilities to sell more power generated by wind and solar and to help customers use less electricity.
Senate Bill 310, created by the Republican legislative majorities at the behest of the utilities and some of the state's largest industries, keeps the annually increasing mandates at this year's levels until 2017, when they will automatically be restored -- a provision missing from early versions of the bill but demanded by the governor.
The bill also creates a legislative study committee that could recommend the legislature permanently freeze or amend the standards.
Ohio Consumers Counsel Bruce Weston, who testified against the bill as written and urged lawmakers to instead take a deeper look at provisions in existing law that favor the utilities over customers, on Friday said he looked forward to working with the study committee.
Kasich's signature makes Ohio the first state to roll back both its efficiency rules and its renewable energy mandates. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in March did not sign but allowed a bill to go into law ending that state's energy efficiency rules.
While Kasich had no comment on Friday, his press secretary described the bill as a "balanced" way to support renewable energy while helping Ohio's economic recovery" when the Ohio Senate approved the final version just over a week ago.
"Ohio needs more renewable and alternative energy sources and it needs a strong system to support them as they get started," said Rob Nichols, the press secretary, in the statement. "It's naive, however, to think that government could create that system perfectly the first time and never have to check back to see if everything's OK."
That system, enacted into law with only one dissenting vote in 2008, would have required electric utilities to help customers use less electricity annually through 2024 by switching home, office and industrial equipment to the most efficient available.
By 2025, utilities would have had to prove they had helped customers reduce power consumption overall by 22 percent, compared to 2009 levels. They had to prove that 12.5 percent of the power they sold came from renewable technologies.
The point of the 2008 legislation was to help utilities avoid the expense of building new power plants. But the efficiency standards, coming into play in the middle of the recession, have hurt power sales. FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron has been especially critical.
FirstEnergy on Friday said the company was happy with the new law.
"FirstEnergy is pleased that Ohio took a positive step toward reforming the state's costly energy efficiency and renewable energy mandates," the company said in a statement. "For more than two years, we have joined with customer groups, labor unions, major electric utilities, and hundreds of customers advocating for meaningful changes to the current law. Senate Bill 310 will benefit consumers and support job growth in Ohio by holding the line on further bill increases to pay for energy efficiency programs."
Some industrial power users, such as Timken and Alcoa, supported the legislation, saying the utility programs designed to help them use less electricity were redundant and too expensive, and at the very least they should be exempted. Other manufacturers, including Honda and Whirlpool, opposed the bill.
David Boehm, an attorney with the Ohio Energy Group, representing the state's largest industrial companies, on Friday said Kasich was right to sign the legislation.
"We think it is smart to stop the [annual] increases for a while, so we can take a look and make sure we are really going in the right direction," Boehm said.
He pointed out that the goal of reducing consumption by 22 percent came late in the debate about the original legislation and seemed to be based more on politics than on engineering.
Consumer, business and environmental coalitions fought the passage of Senate Bill 310 for months, arguing that the annually tightening efficiency rules have saved more money than they cost and that the renewable mandates had led to more than $1 billion in investments in the state.
On Friday, they were sharply critical of the governor, with whom they had pleaded during the past several weeks to veto the measure, to force lawmakers to draw up a less Draconian measure.
Some based their criticisms on environmental concerns, others on air quality fears, while others questioned the timing of the legislation, given that federal regulators are taking aim at carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
"By signing SB 310 into law today, Gov. Kasich sent the clear message that he is stepping away from his platform of a broad energy portfolio. As people of faith, it's our moral obligation to care for all of creation," said Sara Ward, director of Ohio Interfaith Power and Light, an interdenominational coalition. "The short-term thinking of this hypocrisy only serves a few special interests."
David Scott, board president of the National Sierra Club, was also sharply critical. "This reckless step backward gives Ohioans fewer energy choices, fewer jobs, and dirtier air," he said "As even Lake Erie shows adverse impacts from climate disruption, as respected scientific bodies warn we must cut carbon pollution now, this is grossly irresponsible."
The American Lung Association said it was "extremely disappointed" with Kasich's decision. "By preventing any further clean energy progress, this legislation will unnecessarily leave millions of Ohio citizens at risk from the negative health effects related to additional power plant emissions."
The National Wildlife Federation said Kasich and lawmakers "picked winners and losers in our state, and they picked the wrong side. They pitted consumers, public health, and further clean energy investment against utilities, with polluters coming out on top. As a result, Ohio will now be less competitive. At a time when other states are attracting clean energy manufacturing jobs and investment, they just closed Ohio for business."
And the organization, Moms Clean Air Force in Ohio, claiming 10,000 members, said Kasich's acceptance of the bill was "short-sighted" and would "not only jeopardize Ohio's clean energy economy and increase consumer rates, but it is a complete dismissal of the children who struggle every day with asthma and other lung diseases."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has fought against similar measures limiting renewable and efficiency standards in other states, predicted Ohio would soon revisit the issue.
"Energy efficiency and renewable energy are the biggest tools in cost-effectively reaching the U.S. EPA's new carbon pollution goals," said NRDC attorney Samantha Williams. "Once decision makers digest the new clean power plan, they are going to have to reopen the toolbox that this law essentially shuts."
The Ohio Environmental Council said the freeze means Ohio will see "dirtier air, higher electric bills and lost jobs and investment: These are the new 'dividends' in store for Ohio from this major divestiture in clean energy," said Trish Demeter, the council's managing director of energy and clean air programs.
Cheryl Roberto, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and a former member of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, also decried Kasich's decision to sign the bill.
"The bill that the governor signed can only be viewed as a step backwards for the state. Senate Bill 310 dismantles existing policy that is attracting new energy innovation, investment and jobs to the state and providing documented savings. Ohioans deserve better."
Ohio Consumers' Council Bruce Weston hopes to advise a legislative study committee examining Ohio's future standards for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Watson will not be a member of the committee, as an earlier version of this article stated.