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This week’s news begins not far from my backyard. At the Ohio Statehouse, about five miles from my house, lawmakers have released a plan that would help nuclear power plants while cutting funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. Here’s what people are saying about it and what may be next.

I’m Dan Gearino, your guide to the clean energy economy. Send news tips and comments to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org. Thanks for reading!

— Dan

The Ohio Nuclear Proposal and ‘Bogus’ Arguments

State lawmakers in Ohio have released their plan to subsidize the state’s two nuclear power plants, a measure that would also gut state standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
 
The proposal has been in the works for months. It's the culmination of a push by FirstEnergy Solutions, the plants’ owner, and its allies to elect sympathetic lawmakers to pass some form of nuclear aid.  (I first wrote about it last month.)
 
Almost immediately after the release on Friday, the proposal faced a pile-on of criticism from across the political spectrum and an array of business interests, including environmental groups and the oil and gas industry.
 
I don’t see how this becomes law in anything resembling its current form.

Among the many people baffled by this proposal is Steve Clemmer, director of research for the clean energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He was co-author of a recent report that argued that policymakers should take steps to subsidize nuclear plants — if the plant is operating safely, if the plant’s finances are transparent, and if it is part of a broader clean energy strategy.

He told me the Ohio bill gets it wrong almost across the board, especially in the way it weakens existing renewable energy and energy efficiency rules rather than strengthening them.

“They’re trying to make the argument that it’s going to save people money,” Clemmer said. He says that is “a bogus argument.”

The bill would add a $2.50 monthly charge to household utility bills across the state. The sponsors say this is a savings compared to the roughly $4.50 per month that consumers now pay for renewable energy and efficiency programs.

The problem with this reasoning is that the existing programs are saving consumers money and contributing to the economy, Clemmer said. This is especially true of the efficiency programs, which provide a net savings by helping customers find ways to use less electricity.

The bill’s new surcharge would generate about $300 million per year that a state panel would allocate to companies that operate carbon-free power plants or plants that make improvements to reduce their carbon emissions. This could include plants that run on coal or gas that install equipment to reduce emissions.

“It’s about all of the above,” said House Speaker Larry Householder (below, left), quoted by the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m a believer that we need various energy sources in the state of Ohio.”

The two FirstEnergy Solutions nuclear plants — Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station and Perry Nuclear Power Plant — would get about half of the proceeds, an amount based on their annual output of carbon-free electricity.

Wind and solar are eligible for benefits, but there are conditions that would mean few projects would qualify. Among these limits: wind farms would need to be
between 5 and 50 megawatts, which is smaller than most wind farms in the state.

The bill would cut funding for existing renewable energy and efficiency programs by saying that customers must opt in to charges that pay for the programs, expecting that almost nobody would do that.

This would undermine the state law that says utilities must meet annual benchmarks for renewable energy and efficiency, and it is the main reason that environmental groups and clean energy businesses are against the bill.

Republicans hold a large majority in the House, which should give the party wide latitude to pass its agenda. But this bill is opposed by the oil and gas industry, which is a key GOP constituency.

There is a playbook for how to pass nuclear subsidies. Illinois and New Jersey both passed bills that combined support for nuclear with an expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency.


Clemmer notes that the Ohio bill, and one being considered in Pennsylvania, do not seem to take inspiration from those successful efforts.

That said, complex energy legislation takes time to come together. The Illinois and New Jersey plans changed a lot before they passed. The Ohio bill is just getting started, and I’ll let you know what happens.


(Photo: House Speaker Larry Householder. Credit: State of Ohio)
 

Rooftop Solar Under Attack in Idaho

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about how Idaho Power was committing to get 100 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2045, one of the first utilities to make such a pledge.
 
The company soaked up the love from environmental groups, only to make a separate proposal now that has made those groups livid — a halt on rooftop solar for nearly all businesses.
 
Idaho Power wants to halt new hookups of rooftop solar systems by businesses until state regulators study (and potentially modify) the rates that the businesses get paid for selling their excess electricity to the grid. The freeze wouldn’t affect residential solar or very small businesses.
 
This is an unusual and drastic request that would devastate the companies that install the systems.
 
The reason for the proposal, according to Idaho Power, is that businesses’ use of solar is increasing so quickly that some costs of maintaining the grid could shift to other customers.
 
Utilities often make this argument. The problem is that it doesn’t take into account that growth in customer-owned solar can cut costs for everyone by reducing demand to build large power plants.
 
"Idaho Power may be promising 100 percent clean energy, but now the monopoly utility is making clear that it wants to be the only one that controls that affordable, reliable clean power,” Briana Kobor, regulatory director for Vote Solar, said in a statement. “Every Idaho family, church, school and business should have the right to go solar on their own property if they so choose, and they deserve fair net metering compensation and predictability from their utility for making that investment.”
 
State regulators will soon issue a timetable for responding to the request, which will allow for a comment period.

(Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images )
 

Vermont Utility Joins 100% Carbon Free Club

Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, said this week it will make the transition to produce all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

The company, which serves 265,000 customers, is setting a target that is 15 years ahead of Idaho Power’s pledge to go 100 percent clean energy. It’s 20 years ahead of
Xcel Energy’s target of relying exclusively on carbon-free power (which can include nuclear).

It helps that Green Mountain Power is already
close to being carbon-free, with only about 10 percent coming from fossil fuels.

The company says it will be carbon free by 2025 and all renewable by 2030, after it stops receiving electricity from a Connecticut nuclear power plant.

“There is so much we can accomplish together in Vermont to cut carbon, and at the same time increase reliability for customers in the face of increasingly frequent and severe storms,” Mary Powell, the utility's president and CEO, said in a statement.

“Green Mountain Power is determined that through innovation, collaboration and grit, we can make remarkable strides and be the example of the change we want to see and deliver this energy future to benefit the customers we serve,” she said.


While it was a surprise when Idaho Power made its announcement, Green Mountain Power has long been one of the most likely to take this step. It has been moving toward a cleaner generation mix for more than a decade and has been a leader in deploying energy storage in its service territory.

At some point, it will cease to be notable when utilities announce their plans for this kind of transition, and the focus will turn to the stragglers. For now, however, there is still an opportunity for companies to be among the early movers, and Green Mountain Power is clearly on that list.
 

Big Solar Arrays Get Go-Ahead in Wisconsin, Virginia

Some big solar projects got key approvals last week in Wisconsin and Virginia.

In Wisconsin, state regulators
approved plans for two solar arrays that together will quintuple the state’s solar capacity. This includes a 300-megawatt project in southwest Wisconsin and a 150-megawatt project along Lake Michigan.

They were approved despite some local opposition to the southwest Wisconsin project from people who had concerns that solar panels would be unsightly and take up too much space.


“It is a landmark day for solar energy in Wisconsin,” Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy group, said in a statement. “With solar energy, we will produce homegrown, healthy energy right here in Wisconsin for years to come and provide substantial economic benefits to the landowners and local governments who will host these projects.”

In Virginia, the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors approved a permit to allow construction of a 500-megawatt solar array there. The project would be the largest on the East Coast.

As in Wisconsin, the Virginia plan faced opposition from some residents who had concerns about how the solar array would look and the loss of trees on the land.

I wrote about both of these projects in previous editions of this newsletter. The approvals show how giant solar projects are spreading across the country, far from the leading solar markets like California.

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