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Ohio nuclear bailout bill held up because of lawmaker absences

By Jeremy Pelzer • Jul 18, 2019 at 3:30 PM

COLUMBUS — After hours of debates, negotiation and votes, Ohio lawmakers prepared to give final approval to high-profile legislation to gut Ohio’s green-energy mandates and create large public subsidies for nuclear and coal plants.

But there was one problem: because four “yes” votes in the House were gone, supporters fell one vote short Wednesday of getting the 50-vote majority needed to send House Bill 6 to Gov. Mike DeWine, who has indicated support for the measure.

“We tried to see if we could round up enough votes to get to 50, and we were a little bit short,” said House Speaker Larry Householder, who has passing made HB6 a priority.

One of the lawmakers who voted “yes” during a previous HB6 vote, Republican Steve Arndt, retired, Householder said. Three other House members were absent - Democrats Joe Miller of Amherst and John Patterson of Ashtabula County, and Republican Sara Carruthers of Hamilton.

Householder said the House will “probably” try again to vote on the bill on Aug. 1, depending on members’ availability.

Under the bill, from 2021 until 2027 every Ohio electricity customer would pay a new monthly surcharge that ranges from 85 cents for residential customers to $2,400 for large industrial plants.

Of the $170 million per year brought in from that new surcharge, $150 million of that would go FirstEnergy Solutions to bail out its two Ohio nuclear power plants – Davis-Besse near Toledo and Perry northeast of Cleveland. The remaining $20 million per year will go to support six solar power projects being built in rural areas around the state.

Also, starting next January, ratepayers around the state would also have to chip in up to $1.50 monthly (and up to $1,500 per month for commercial and industrial users) to subsidize coal plants in Ohio and Indiana run by the Ohio Valley Electric Corp.

However, HB6 would effectively stop Ohio’s decade-old energy-efficiency and renewable-energy mandates for utilities, which currently cost residential customers an average of $4.74 per month, according to cost charts provided by the Senate committee hearing the bill.

FirstEnergy Solutions, which is involved in bankruptcy proceedings, claims (without giving specifics) that the plants are unprofitable and will close in the next couple years without financial help, devastating nearby communities and putting more than 1,400 people out of work.

Critics of the nuclear bailout say the state shouldn’t be handing over such a large amount of money to a private company with few or no strings attached. (The bill requires state regulators to conduct an annual financial “review” of FirstEnergy Solutions from 2022 to 2026 based on the company’s internal audits).

As for the energy mandates, a number of lawmakers — mostly Republicans, who dominate both the Ohio House and Senate — have worked for years to eliminate them, saying they are an example of government overreach, raise electricity costs, and are no longer needed thanks to the rise of cheap natural gas.

Supporters say the mandates have been proven to save more money than they cost and help prevent pollution and carbon emission.

The final version of House Bill 6 technically keeps the mandates in place. But it ends the energy-efficiency standards for each utility once it achieves a 17.5-percent power reduction — a level that most utilities are already close to reaching. It also would allow utilities to use “banked” energy savings from past years. That is, energy usage reductions beyond the state mandates — and apply them to future years, meaning the companies wouldn’t have to take as much action going forward to increase consumers’ energy efficiency.

In addition, HB6 scales back the renewable-energy goal from a maximum of 12.5 percent by 2027 to 8.5 percent by 2026 – the level that, under current law, utilities must reach by 2022.

Until the late-night curveball, lawmakers appeared to remove all the roadblocks in the way of passing the bill. The Senate passed the bill Wednesday afternoon, after approving an amendment at the request of the House and DeWine to have the nuclear/solar subsidies start in 2021 instead of next year.

“The only thing we’re lacking right now is we’re missing about four people in their chairs,” Householder said.

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