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Surprising Many, Kasich Fights for Renewable Energy Standards

The hits began early and kept on coming Wednesday for a new plan from Republican state legislators to place an indefinite freeze on Ohio's clean-energy standards, with the governor and many others saying the proposal is a bad idea.

By Dan Gearino

The hits began early and kept on coming Wednesday for a new plan from Republican state legislators to place an indefinite freeze on Ohio's clean-energy standards, with the governor and many others saying the proposal is a bad idea.

Much of the criticism was expected, coming from environmentalists, Democrats and other known opponents. But the comments from Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who signed a temporary freeze last year, took some observers by surprise.

"A continued freeze of Ohio's energy standards is unacceptable, and we stand willing to work with the Ohio General Assembly to craft a bill that supports a diverse mix of reliable, low-cost energy sources while preserving the gains we have made in the state's economy," Kasich spokesman Joe Andrews wrote in an email.

He was responding to the final recommendations issued on Wednesday by the Energy Mandates Study Committee, a joint House-Senate panel that began meeting last fall to consider changes to Ohio's energy policies.

The report calls for an open-ended freeze on standards for electricity utilities to increase their production of clean energy. The proposal would replace a two-year freeze that is in effect. Without a change in the law, the freeze would expire at the end of next year, and the escalating annual standards would resume.

Instead of requiring utilities to meet annual increases in how much clean energy they produce, the panel is calling for a new system in which utilities would receive incentives under optional programs. The Ohio General Assembly would come up with the specifics.

"The report is only step one of the process," said Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, in an email. He was co-chairman of the panel and co-author of the report with Rep. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson.

"Moving forward, we welcome input from Gov. Kasich, the (Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio), while we keep Ohio ratepayers and consumers as our top priority in bringing them affordable power with an all-in approach," Balderson said.

The report says an indefinite freeze "is the best path forward for Ohio" because of uncertainty related to the federal Clean Power Plan, rules announced last year that set state-by-state goals for reducing carbon emissions. The state panel justifies this in part by citing testimony from Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA.

But Butler, who is part of the Kasich administration, is not on board with the report.

"The recommendation by (the committee) to indefinitely freeze Ohio's energy mandates due to Clean Power Plan uncertainties is misguided," Butler said in an email.

He said the federal plan is "fraught with legal and technical problems," but he also thinks that energy efficiency and renewable energy "may be key to a low-cost strategy to reduce carbon emissions and ultimately comply with the federal Clean Power Plan."

The League of Conservation Voters also criticized the panel's recommendation.

"The committee today ignored the overwhelming evidence before them that showed that Ohio's clean-energy standards reduce electric bills, grow the Ohio economy, create jobs in the state while protecting public health and the environment," said Beth Nagusky, Ohio policy director for the league, in a statement.

The comments reflect an underlying disagreement about whether increasing clean-energy use would lead to a net increase or decrease in electricity bills, with each side using its own method to calculate the costs.

Ohio has had a plan for putting more emphasis on clean energy since the passage of a 2008 law that calls for utilities to increase their investments in clean-energy programs toward final goals in 2025.

Among the supporters of the committee's proposal is the Buckeye Institute, a conservative research group. The group's CEO, Robert Alt, said he disagrees with the governor on this.

"We shouldn't return to the policy mistakes of the Strickland administration by embracing another costly government mandate," Alt said, referring to Kasich's predecessor, Democrat Ted Strickland, who signed the 2008 standards into law.

American Electric Power, a supporter of the two-year freeze, did not comment on the specific recommendations but did say that the committee has valid concerns about the Clean Power Plan.

Meanwhile, a group announced its formation on Wednesday and said it will be a conservative voice for greater investment in clean energy. The Ohio Conservative Energy Forum includes prominent activists such as Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, and is led by Mike Hartley, president of a political consulting firm.

"Right now, we're at a crossroads" with state energy policy, Hartley said. "We believe an indefinite freeze is not the solution."

The next step is for legislative leaders to decide whether to turn the recommendations into bills in the House and Senate, and if so, how.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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