Workers demonstrate equipment at a Cleveland-area training facility for sheet metal workers, where up to 80 percent of training involves aspects of energy efficiency. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski

A bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers saw firsthand how energy efficiency programs support good jobs as they met with union and business leaders last week at a Cleveland-area training facility.

On August 24, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers Local 33 (SMART) union and the Cleveland chapter of Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) hosted lawmakers and business leaders for a panel discussion and tour of the SMART Local 33 Training Center.

The 38,000-square-foot facility is “primarily devoted to energy efficiency,” said Local 33 President Mike Coleman, noting that more than 78,000 Ohioans work in that growing industry sector.

“Investments in energy efficiency support good, local jobs that can’t be outsourced, while helping businesses save money,” he said.

Staying competitive

The Local 33 training facility is one of only five such facilities nationwide, Coleman reported. Apprentices learn hands-on skills in its five-year program.

“The facility is also for the journeyman, to upgrade his skills for the latest technology that’s offered out there,” added John Sickle of Duct Fabricators in Cleveland and Ohio Fabricators in Akron.

A “good majority” of the industry contractors in Ohio are family-owned businesses, many “in our second or third generation,” Sickle continued. “There are a lot of family-owned businesses that embrace this technology. We always have to stay on the leading edge to embrace energy efficiency, so we don’t lose that market.”

“It’s a team effort when we’re talking about high efficiency and energy efficiency projects,” added Thomas Martin, president of SMACNA and head of T.J. Martin, Inc. in Cleveland. Projects provide work not only for union members, but also for engineers, architects, suppliers and various support jobs.

“To stay competitive, we have to keep up with new energy efficiency technology, so we can offer our customers the latest options to improve comfort and save money,” Martin said.

Energy efficiency projects also help other businesses stay more competitive, stressed Jennifer Kefer of the Alliance for Industrial Efficiency. “Industrial energy accounts for about 30 percent of the energy used in this state,” she explained. “U.S. manufacturers can become more competitive by saving energy.”

‘Multiple paths forward’

Yet while the state has already done a lot in the field, “the potential for energy efficiency in Ohio is even greater,” Kefer said. Indeed, energy efficiency projects could save all Ohio ratepayers billions of dollars between 2018 and 2030, she added.

How much those savings will be and how many jobs will be created depends in large part on policy, Trish Demeter of the Ohio Environmental Council said. “There are multiple paths forward,” she explained, referring to a variety of energy bills pending before the state legislature.

House Bill 114, for example, would reduce the targets under Ohio’s energy efficiency standards and make it easier for businesses to opt out of the program. The incentives currently work to reduce the payback time for capital projects involving energy efficiency. The Ohio House passed that bill last spring and it’s now in the state Senate.

Meanwhile, other bills would lead to unavoidable charges to subsidize older coal or nuclear generation plants. Energy efficiency projects would still save money on electricity, but savings would become a smaller percentage of the total bill, which could affect management decisions to proceed with projects.

“The more efficiency that’s being done out there in the state of Ohio, the cheaper electricity is for everyone,” Demeter said. And while there isn’t necessarily one particular policy path forward, ongoing policy debates and efforts to reverse or weaken standards create uncertainty, she noted.

“It’s important to know what stable long-term policy is” to produce continuing investments in the industry and “make sure the industry will grow here in Ohio,” Demeter said.

‘The energy of the future’

Incentives are important to support and propel the state’s move toward energy efficiency, said Ohio House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) as he walked the floor of the training facility. In his view, energy efficiency is “the cheapest energy we have” and will become more important “as the economy becomes more competitive.”

“We want to make sure that we promote this as a way of life and a way of making a living,” Strahorn continued. “Even if somebody doesn’t believe in global warming, it still makes a lot of sense to engage in energy efficiency, because it’s the energy of the future. It is going to come no matter what, and whoever is prepared to plug into it is going to do really well.”

Competition is not only global but interstate as well, noted House member David Leland (D-Columbus). Ohio had vision in the early 20th century to develop its automotive industry, which attracted investment and jobs to the state, he explained. He wants Ohio’s policies to do the same thing now with energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“We tried in the Senate to take an all-of-the-above approach — a real one,” commented Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina). “I know a lot of people use that as a slogan, but we do mean it. We want diversity of energy resources.”

“We are working together with the House right now to try to find some common solutions on energy issues that relate both to some of the state mandates [and] also to increasing some of the non-traditional energy sectors like wind and solar,” Obhof continued.

Ohio House Majority Whip Tom Patton (R-Strongsville) was particularly impressed by the collaboration between union members and contractors that funds the training facility. “We talk about job training all the time,” he said. “This is job training right here.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ms. Kefer’s name.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.