Ohio Capitol Building. Credit: Jim Bowen / Creative Commons

Ohio’s next governor could grow the state’s economy by supporting clean energy, according to a business group’s policy agenda released last week.

Ohio Advanced Energy Economy urged Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Robert Cordray to adopt policies that promote clean energy. The organization is an affiliate of a national association representing companies in the cleantech and renewable energy sectors.

Midwest Energy News spoke with AEE Ohio President Ted Ford and State Legislative Affairs Director Ray Fakhoury about what they hope to convey to the state’s 2018 gubernatorial candidates.

Why should voters care about how candidates will act on energy policy?

Ted Ford

“Energy matters a lot to the average consumer,” Ford said. “Whether or not they have a modern reliable clean energy system that provides low-cost electricity is something they need to pay attention to.”

Smart clean energy policies can control rates, increase the grid’s reliability, add jobs and improve Ohio’s economic outlook, Fakhoury added. “These kinds of policies are going to benefit all Ohioans.”

Why is state energy policy especially important in this election year?

Ohio has had “five years of on-again-off-again energy policy,” Ford said. Progress in clean energy policies through 2013 was followed by a two-year “freeze” and other obstacles, such as a tripling of property line setbacks for wind turbines. When that freeze thawed somewhat in early 2017, efforts began again to hamper the industry’s progress, he explained.  

Ray Fakhoury

“Because of this back and forth, investors have kind of been leery,” Fakhoury said. “What they are really looking [for] is stability.” Ohio currently has more than 105,000 advanced energy jobs, but that number could be much higher “if we allowed competition to thrive, instead of creating this cloud of doubt…. I would definitely say the jobs are going elsewhere currently. ”

What general approach to energy do you want Ohio candidates to take?

“It’s imperative that they be proactive on energy policy and not reactionary,” Ford said. “Proactive would be a forward-looking look at how we modernize, versus how we circle the wagons around some existing systems that aren’t going to be functional for us long term.”

As of last year, roughly two-thirds of Fortune 100 companies had clean energy targets, and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies had at least one climate or clean energy goal, according to an April 2017 report from Ceres, the World Wildlife Fund, CDP and Calvert Research and Management. Clean energy policies will help Ohio add jobs as those and other companies look to locate new facilities or expand old ones, Fakhoury said.

Amazon just said it will open a new distribution center in Ohio. Doesn’t that show the state can attract new jobs anyway?

Amazon has said it supports efforts to roll back a 2014 law that tripled property line setbacks for commercial wind farm turbines. Meanwhile, Ohio has another “missed opportunity” where the state could have even more jobs by building a new wind farm or solar facility in state to meet the company’s clean energy requirements, Fakhoury said.

In your view, what’s wrong with the 2014 wind turbine setback law?

“It wasn’t really a safety standard to begin with. It’s about protecting one type of generation over a different type of generation,” Ford said. By that he means the bill hobbled wind energy in order to favor fossil fuels. That 2014 setback change was tacked onto a budget bill at the last minute with no public hearing, he added.

The policy roadmap advocates for maintaining and expanding Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, which are again threatened by Ohio House Bill 114. How do you answer some Ohio lawmakers who rail against the standards as mandates?

The standards created a market incentive that could help finance projects, Ford said. “It was not a top-down ‘we’re going to do this, this and this,’ picking winners and losers. Instead, it’s creating a marketplace for these things.”

“To the extent that we can strengthen and expand those market mechanisms, I think we’re going to be in a better place long term,” Fakhoury added.

The policy paper also advocates for more electric vehicles and charging stations. Why do those issues matter?

“One of the real reasons to push hard on this is the rapid transition to electric vehicles that is coming globally,” Ford said. In Ohio, “you’ve got a chicken and egg situation where you need to get the charging infrastructure in place.” A recent AEP rate case could add 375 new stations, but the rest of the state lags far behind.

The policy paper urges the removal of barriers for energy efficiency and distributed energy. What’s the problem?

The flip-flops on the clean energy standards and wind setbacks are both big problems, along with the issue of providing adequate compensation for distributed energy, Fakhoury said.

More generally, Ohio’s utility compensation model should be updated, he and Ford said. Utilities have traditionally charged based on how much electricity people use. In their view, a better model would reduce electricity use and promote clean, distributed energy, while making sure utility distribution companies remain economically viable.

“It’s about aligning the incentives and the utility business model so that they are healthy and performing in new ways that are of interest to consumers as the electricity industry changes,” Ford said. “It’s in the interest of us economically as a state to make sure we’re not viewed as laggards but rather on the leading edge.”

Are the policies you’re advocating consistent with what both major political parties stand for?

“Energy really shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Ford said. “What we’re trying to put forward are common sense directions that any candidate would want to pursue just as a matter of good government and good policy.”

“It makes sense to look at where your candidates stand” Fakhoury added. If they would cut back access or hinder growth in advanced energy technologies, “you want to know that.”

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.