Coming Clean in Ohio: How Fossil Fuel Interests Unraveled the Buckeye State’s Renewable Energy Progress

Ohio was on track to source about an eighth of its energy from renewables— and then reversed course under pressure from fossil fuel-friendly state assemblymen.

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Ohio can serve as a cautionary tale of the power of dirty energy interests successfully halting its clean energy progresss (Photo courtesy of Greg Brock)

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At a time when states should be ramping up their renewable energy efforts, at least one state that was on track to source about an eighth of its energy from renewables suddenly reversed course under the pressure of a few fossil-fuel friendly state assemblymen. Ohio had strong state goals for renewable generation seeking 12.5% of its electricity to be generated from clean sources such as solar and wind. This summer, however, progress in the Buckeye State was halted when Governor John Kasich signed a bill that froze Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard for two years.

The decision came just a week and a half after the Obama Administration released its proposed Clean Power Plan. If strengthened and finalized, the rule would be a lasting legacy of President Obama’s efforts to protect the environment. The rule calls for a 30% reduction in carbon pollution from 2005 rates by 2030. One of the building blocks toward achieving that goal focuses on expanding renewable generating capacity to bring more clean power from solar and wind into the electricity mix.

Many states have been producing plans to expand their renewable energy programs, in part to comply with the Clean Power Plan. Solar, wind and other clean energy renewable resources help us cost-effectively reduce our carbon emissions and must play a central role in a transition to a clean energy economy. However, these important resources remain largely underutilized across the country, and the renewable energy aspect of the plan as currently proposed reflects the status quo rather than the higher levels of investment that we can achieve and that are already underway in many states.

In 2008, with an overwhelming majority, Ohio’s state legislature passed a bill into law establishing the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Upon signing the bill, the Governor said, “This is a piece of legislation that will last 100 years in Ohio.” This law required that by 2025, at least 12.5% of electricity sold in Ohio be generated by renewable energy resources such as wind and solar. In a state that created almost 70% of its energy from coal in 2013, an RPS is an important tool to facilitate the state’s clean energy transition and the country’s carbon reduction efforts as a whole.

Earlier this year, political leaders in Ohio had a change of heart. On June 13, 2014, less than two weeks after the draft Clean Power Plan was introduced, Governor Kasich signed SB 310, a new law freezing Ohio’s 2008 RPS decision for two years. The Governor’s Office now claimed that the standards are unrealistic and need to be reviewed, stating, “It’s naive to think that government could create that system perfectly the first time and never have to check back to see if everything’s OK.”

This seemingly abrupt reversal on clean energy has left many scientists, climate activists and more than 70 corporations and organizations scratching their heads. What really happened here?

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is known to for its links to oil, gas and coal interests, played a key role in pushing the freeze of Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard through the state legislature and onto the Governor’s desk. In 2012, ALEC’s board of directors adopted a model bill written by the Heartland Institute misleadingly called the “Electricity Freedom Act.” This bill describes an RPS as “essentially a tax on consumers of electricity that forces the use of renewable energy sources beyond what would be called for by real market forces.” This model bill strongly influenced the language in SB 310.

Condemning the RPS as a tax on consumers forcing renewable energy is ironic given that the Public Utility Commission of Ohio is currently evaluating proposals from utilities in the state to saddle ratepayers with the costs of operating seven coal-fired power plants for years to come. Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club in challenging two of those proposals. The first is a proposal from FirstEnergy’s Ohio affiliates to require ratepayers to pay the costs of operating the Sammis coal plant, along with the Davis Besse nuclear plant, for the next 15 years. The second is a proposal by Ohio Power Company, an affiliate of American Electric Power, that would saddle ratepayers with the costs of operating all or portions of four coal plants for the next 20 to 35 years or more. Such proposals are bad for ratepayers, would crowd out investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and are directly contrary to the carbon reduction goals set forth in the Clean Power Plan.

ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council includes dirty energy leaders such as Koch Industries, Energy Future Holdings, Peabody Energy and ExxonMobil. In the company of these fossil energy giants are key members of the Ohio legislature who strongly promoted SB 310. According to the Huffington Post, ALEC introduced at least 37 bills in 2013 that aimed to eliminate or weaken RPSs across the country, but very few of these efforts have passed into legislation. Ohio is an exception.

The Ohio legislature’s ties with ALEC reflect a larger, troubling trend of denial, roadblocks and backsliding on climate change issues that have plagued the United States for the last 30 years. Earthjustice has exposed ties between campaign contributions from dirty energy interests and climate deniers in Congress.

As we begin our renewable energy transition, it is more important than ever to remain vigilant of special interests that aim to derail clean energy progress in favor of status quo fossil fuels and big profits. Just as important is having a strong and enforceable Clean Power Rule that encourages ambitious renewable energy growth and not just the business as usual approach that keeps states stuck on fossil fuels.

About this series

The Clean Power Plan sets different goals for each state to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030. As one pathway to meet those goals, the EPA suggests a renewable energy target for each state.

However, many of the states are already on track to meet or even exceed those renewable aims. Find out how your state stacks up on the road to the cleaner energy future at Coming Clean: The State of U.S. Renewable Energy.

Don’t miss previous installments of the Coming Clean blog series:

  • Hawaiʻi: The Launchpad for Clean Energy Liftoff
  • California: How the Golden State Is Winning the Renewable Energy Race
  • Kentucky: A Ray of Light in Coal Country

As a communications strategist, Miranda covers Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific and California regional offices. She has campaigned to defend public water resources in North America and is a graduate of the Master’s in Global Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara where her research focused on climate change.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.