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This week we start where I live, Columbus, Ohio, where a new law is gutting requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency, but clean energy advocates see a bright future.

I’m Dan Gearino, with news and analysis of the clean energy economy. Send me news tips and questions at dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading!

— Dan

Looking for the Bright Side in Ohio

The fight to overturn a controversial Ohio energy law is now over after a group, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, dropped a legal challenge to the legislation. As a result, the Ohio Supreme Court last week dismissed the case, which sought more time for the group to gather signatures for a ballot referendum to overturn the law. 

The law, House Bill 6, subsidizes nuclear and coal power and cuts requirements that utilities invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Now that the law will stand, clean energy industries need to learn to live with it. I expected this to be a grim prospect, but found a surprisingly bright outlook from two people who are deeply connected to what’s happening.

“The fundamentals for large-scale solar development in Ohio is incredibly strong,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and energy program. This is because the market demand for solar is large enough to overcome the most harmful aspects of the new law, he said.

Sawmiller has been in various state government and clean energy advocacy jobs for more than a decade, and I know him from my time covering energy at the Columbus Dispatch.

Many states with renewable energy requirements give utility companies wide latitude on where those projects are located, including out of state. This is important because other states are increasing their requirements for renewables, a move that will lead to demand for solar and wind projects just about everywhere, including in Ohio.

Some numbers to help explain this: The new law says Ohio utilities must get 8.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2026, which is about the level they’re already getting, and is less than the 12.5 percent by 2026 that was previously going to be required. Much of the renewable power that utilities buy to comply with the law comes from projects in other states.

At the same time, Maryland—to name one of several state examples—last year passed a bill saying utilities need to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, replacing a law that set a target of 25 percent by 2020.

Considering the scale of commitments in other states, Ohio’s small decrease of an already small requirement doesn’t seem like much.

It helps that Ohio is part of what is called the PJM Interconnection grid region, which runs from New Jersey to the Chicago area. Developers could build solar on inexpensive, sunny land in Ohio and be able to deliver the electricity to places where land is much more expensive.

Another bit of good news for solar is that the Ohio legislation includes $20 million per year in subsidies for renewable energy projects, Sawmiller said. This is a small part of a bill that mostly benefits nuclear (with $150 million per year split between two plants) and coal (providing a guaranteed profit to two coal-fired power plants), but it could make a difference for some projects.

Don’t get him wrong. Sawmiller loathes this bill and fought hard against it. He just thinks the strength of demand for renewable energy is strong enough to overcome what Ohio lawmakers have done.

Also, he thinks that a 2014 Ohio law, limiting the distance between wind turbines and buildings, has done so much damage to the state’s wind industry that the new law will have a negligible effect on wind farm development.

The greatest damage from new the bill may be how it helps to normalize the idea of cutting requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the message it sends about Ohio, he said. He thinks this is bad for Ohio’s image and economy, and that it will inspire similarly short-sighted proposals in other states, such as the one now being debated in Indiana.

Sawmiller is not alone in thinking the 2020s could be a good decade for clean energy in Ohio, especially solar energy.

Madeline Fleisher, a Columbus attorney specializing in energy and environmental issues. Said, “This might be surprising, but it’s probably better than it’s been most of my time in Ohio.” She added: “House Bill 6 did nothing to change the market fundamentals.”

Fleisher also sees benefits in the state finally getting some clarity about  renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. The new law is the culmination of years of efforts by Republican lawmakers and utility lobbyists at a time when project developers didn’t know what the rules would be going forward. Now, developers can make decisions with a bit more certainty.

In Ohio, known for overcast winters and having terrible pro football teams, this is what optimism looks like.

Photo credit: Duane Prokop/Getty Images for TakePart.org

Checking the ‘Solar Box’ in West Virginia

Ohio can look to its neighbor to the southeast, West Virginia, for an example of a state that has no requirements for renewable energy, one of only 13 states that can say this. The result has been that the state has almost no solar development, ranking 48th in the country, with 8 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Considering West Virginia’s record, my ears perked up when I read in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week that the state’s director of development told a legislative panel the lack of solar was an impediment for the state in attracting companies.

“Not having, frankly, the solar box checked is a problem, and we’ve heard that from a number of companies,” said Mike Graney, speaking to the West Virginia Senate Finance Committee.

He was referring to how large companies are demanding the ability to get their electricity from solar and other renewable sources as a condition of choosing to locate in a state.

Those resources are much more likely to be available in states with renewable energy requirements.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that West Virginia has some wind energy development, its 686 megawatts giving it a ranking of 26th in the country. That number would almost certainly be higher with even modest policy support from the legislature.

The larger issue is that states would be well-served by attracting jobs of the future, whether they are in renewable energy industries or with the companies that insist on using renewable energy.

Indiana’s Coal Bill and Whale Oil

Last week I wrote about an Indiana bill that would make it more difficult for utilities to shut down coal-fired power plants, a measure written at a time when low prices for wind and solar are making it more difficult for coal plants to compete. If the bill became law, I wrote, Indiana would join Wyoming and Ohio as states that have passed laws to help coal-fired power since the beginning of 2019.

On Monday, the Indiana House of Representatives voted to pass the bill.

With the 52-41 vote in the House, the proposed legislation now heads to the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans and the governor is a Republican.

The bill says that a utility that wants to close a coal plant would need to get approval from state regulators and that regulators would weigh whether or not the plan is in the public interest.

The House amended the bill to remove a provision that would have given utilities an extra 1 percent profit for operating coal plants.

The bill would remain in effect until next spring. The short timeframe is because sponsors, with support from the coal industry, are trying to buy time for a state commission to complete work on a plan that would recommend long-term changes to the rules for utilities. Their aim is to pass a more substantial bill in the 2021 session.

One quirky subplot from the bill’s proceedings: Rep. Ryan Dvorak, a Democrat, sought to call attention to the way the bill seems to be bailing out coal by introducing an amendment to tilt the market in favor of whale oil, the fuel used to power lighting before electricity was widely available.

The amendment, which was rejected, says “many American jobs have been lost in the decimation of the whale oil industry” and it prohibits utilities from selling electricity “when natural and reliable whale oil would serve the purpose of lighting Hoosier homes and businesses.”

Photo credit: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

How Is the World’s Largest Wind Turbine Manufacturer Doing These Days?

One thing I’m watching closely these days is how the businesses in the wind energy industry are faring as they head into what may be a challenging stretch. A U.S. tax credit that has been essential to the industry’s growth is expiring at the end of the year, and the industry has struggled in key European markets such as Germany.

Despite reasons for worry, Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, is reporting a strong financial performance for 2019 and is projecting continued growth in 2020.

The Denmark-based company released the financial results on Wednesday. Its operating profit margin was slightly below analysts’ expectations, but overall figures show a healthy company.

Vestas said it expects 2020 sales to be 14 billion to 15 billion Euros ($15.4 to $16.5), which would be an increase from 12.1 billion Euros ($13.3 billion) in 2019.

“As we continue to lead the transition towards a world powered by sustainable energy, we remain focused on executing our strategy and pushing the industry to higher levels on technology, profitability and sustainability,” said Henrik Andersen, president and CEO, in a statement.

Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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