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Clean Energy Advocates Hope Biden Will Change The Game In Ohio

Crews work on the Hog Creek Wind Farm in Hardin County in September 2017. [Andy Chow / ideastream]
Crews work on the Hog Creek Wind Farm in Hardin County in September 2017.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to spend $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years to fight climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

Advocates of renewable energy in Ohio say the incoming administration has a chance to shape the future of a state where fossil fuels remain major sources of electricity. Ohio’s energy picture has been changing over the last 15 years. Coal is on a downward slide and natural gas has been ascendant.

The state’s coal-fired power plants are aging and utilities in the state have been shutting them down, said Neil Waggoner with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“Are we replacing that generation with wind and solar, or are we replacing that generation with power plants that are fired from fracked gas?” Waggoner said. “Because if we’re doing that, these are short-term gains and long-term losses.”

About 37 percent of the electricity currently generated in Ohio comes from coal, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration reports from last September. Natural gas is now on top, accounting for about 44 percent of the energy generated in state. Nuclear power comes in third.

Renewable sources like wind and solar account for only 2 percent of Ohio’s electricity production. Waggoner expects that share to grow, however, citing new solar projects announced in Western and Southwest Ohio.

“I think the book is open,” he said. “I think some of that’s dependent on what sort of support and what sort of work the Biden administration can do with Congress, in terms of tax credits or direct funding.”

There are companies in Ohio ready to expand renewable energy, said SeMia Bray with Black Environmental Leaders, a local association of Black environmental advocates.

“There are developers right now within the state of Ohio that financially have the wherewithal to… be able to grow their businesses and do business in every area of renewable energy as it moves forward,” Bray said.

The question is who gets the work. Bray hopes the new administration will help minority-owned businesses that have struggled to raise money for renewable projects. Biden should make sure job training programs for clean energy actually connect workers with jobs, she said.

“There’s this notion that every program needs to have a training component,” Bray said. “So then you have the folks, the people in the communities, they go through the training, and by the time they finish the training, the project’s over.”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, progressives pushed for candidates to support the Green New Deal, an aggressive federal spending plan for fighting climate change. Biden did not embrace the plan wholesale, but has called it a “framework” for action. The president-elect has pledged to get the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We need to revive our economy, but we need to do it in an urgent, massive and decarbonized way,” said Akshai Singh, a local progressive climate and public transit activist. “That’s what we need to be doing right now.”

There’s also House Bill 6, the scandal-tainted nuclear bailout that clipped the wings of Ohio’s standards requiring the expansion of renewable energy.

Singh wants to see Ohio’s renewable energy standards returned to their former strength, and said Biden could reduce greenhouse gases by making sure Ohioans have reliable alternatives to driving their gas-powered cars.

“A lot of it’s just really getting standards back,” Singh said. “Requiring utilities to bring renewables online is a big piece. But operations money for public transportation would be a game changer.”

Over the past four years, President Donald Trump has made a point of weakening or halting Obama-era environmental regulations, such as limits on methane emissions and federal protections for waterways

Jonathan Adler, a conservative legal scholar and the director of the Burke Center for Environmental Law at Case Western Reserve University, said he expects the Biden administration to tighten many of the rules Trump loosened.

“New regulatory standards to address greenhouse gases from, say, power plants or large industrial facilities will be more difficult than, say, undoing the Trump administration rollback of emissions standards and fuel economy standards for automobiles,” Adler said.

The bigger challenge for Biden will be getting a major environmental deal through Congress, but Adler sees some opportunities to come at it from a new direction.

“A lot of Republicans think that it’s very important for the federal government to renew its investment in infrastructure,” he said. “There are ways of doing it in ways that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So maybe there’s a bipartisan deal of that sort.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.