Ohio solar project hit with setback while Ontario boosts renewable power

Days after Ohio regulators set back the largest proposed solar power installation in the eastern U.S., the Canadian province of Ontario announced that it will shut down its last coal-fired power plants by the end of 2013, a year ahead of schedule.

The two events are a stark contrast in how bordering nations pursue an advanced energy economy as the debate about climate change continues following record-setting extreme weather in 2012.

In Ontario, a transition to renewables is being funded with a tariff charge to ratepayers. But in Ohio, under the state’s renewable energy standards, boosting renewable power is a gradual mandate with a cost cap for passed-on charges.

On Jan. 9, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio rejected an American Electric Power funding plan to build the 50-megawatt Turning Point project southeast of Zanesville. In a 3-1 vote, PUCO rejected a staff recommendation for approval, writing AEP did not prove the project is necessary.

Key to the commission’s objection is how AEP intended to fund the $180 million project with a 20 cents per month charge for an average Ohio home. The decision doesn’t prevent AEP from going forward, but will require another funding route such as power supply agreements with energy sellers. Ohio does allow utilities an option to pass on charges, but regulators have to approve requests as part of a utility’s “electric security plan.”

Terri Flora, spokeswoman for AEP, said the company is weighing options.“We wanted certainty in order to meet renewable standards,” she said. “We can go out to market the project, but there is uncertainty in what the market will decide.”

The project promised to create 300 manufacturing jobs in Napoleon in Henry County where a Spanish firm wants a $32million plant to build solar panels.

Since PUCO’s decision, the affair has taken a political twist. A post-decision check of PUCO Chairman Todd Snitchler’s Twitter account indicated the chairman is enthusiastic about natural gas, an industry booming in Ohio with new shale gas discoveries, but also Tweets links to less-than-positive views of climate change and renewables.

State Reps. Mike Foley, D-Cleveland, and Robert F. Hagan, D-Youngstown, attacked Snitchler’s feed, offered under the handle “@Snitch92” , as “filled with climate change denials and anti-alternative energy rhetoric.”

“Even after PUCO staff recommended that the project was needed, Chairman Snitchler voted to kill a project that would’ve created hundreds of jobs,” Foley said. “It sure seems that his radical views on climate change and alternative energies played a role in his decision. I would ask the PUCO chairman to publicly explain his views on climate change, so that Ohioans fully understand where he stands on this crucial issue before more jobs are lost in the name if ideology.”

Asked for a response from Snitchler, a PUCO spokesman forwarded this statement: “The chairman thrived on thought-provoking debate as a legislator and encourages it now. It’s silly, however, for anyone to try and place 140-character tweets on the same level as official commission opinions.”

Snitchler, who also serves as chair of the Ohio Power Siting Board, in that capacity approved 755 renewable energy generating facilities in Ohio from smaller household projects to commercial installations, PUCO said, citing records.

But Julian Boggs of Environment Ohio questioned the Kasich administration’s commitment to renewables.

“It speaks volumes about Governor Kasich that he would appoint a chairman of the PUCO who is so out of touch of with the opinions of Ohio’s citizens on renewable energy,” Boggs said.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the critique is off base. “This is politically motivated ankle-biting by political interest groups backed by investors in alternative energy projects,” he said. “This administration will keep supporting alternative energy because it’s the right thing to do.”

Ontario, which shares a water border with Ohio on Lake Erie, said Thursday that it will be one of the first places in the world to have eliminated coal for electricity production. There are 13.5 million Ontario residents.

“Replacing coal-fired electricity generation is the single largest climate change initiative being undertaken in North America. When fully eliminated, it will be equivalent to taking up to 7 million cars off the road,” the Ontario Ministry of Energy said.

In Ontario, power generated from nuclear is 56 percent of the total, hydroelectric is 22 percent and others like renewables are about 4 percent. Ontario credits the tariff-funded energy program with attracting more than $27 billion in private sector investment, 30 new clean energy companies and more than 20,000 jobs.

Ohio gets 82 percent of its electric power from coal.

Turning Point has major community support, with PUCO getting endorsements from the Athens County Economic Development Council; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the University Clean Energy Alliance of Ohio; Ohio Farm Bureau Federation; Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Ohio University; Southeastern Ohio Port Authority; The Ohio State University Extension, Noble County; Morgan County Community Improvement Corporation; Noble Local School District; Noble County Chamber of Commerce; United States Department of Agriculture, Ohio Rural Development; and the Eastern Ohio Development Alliance, among more.