Update 9/18/20: Ohio regulators surprised developers of a wind farm in Lake Erie and reversed a previous decision, assisting the project to move forward. The Ohio Power Siting Board voted unanimously Thursday on an amendment to lift the requirement for nighttime shutdowns of the turbines. Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) President Dave Karpinski, which is developing the project, is quoted as saying he was “very surprised,” and “very happy.” He had called the nighttime shutdown requirement a “poison pill,” that would make the project unfinanceable. Some opponents of project are concerned that it will harm migratory birds and bats. The revised ruling still needs to be officially drafted, and will be up for a vote of the OPSB.
When Dave Karpinski heard that a top Ohio legislator was among those being charged in a $61 million bribery scandal that involved FirstEnergy, he wasn’t surprised. It was more a sense of relief. Karpinski has been struggling for years to get state approval for an offshore wind project in Lake Erie.
“To see that this justice was done, or at least in process of being done, was very vindicating,” Karpinski said. He wasn’t happy for Ohio, but he said news of the scheme showed advocates of wind and solar that the deck really was stacked in favor of traditional energy sources. “We were fighting a losing battle here against that kind of corruption,” he said.
LISTEN: Ohio Energy Scandal “Vindicates” Renewables Advocates
At the center of the controversy is House Bill 6, which was approved last year. It featured a customer-paid $1 billion bailout of two FirstEnergy nuclear plants in northern Ohio, and two coal plants, partially owned by the company. It also eliminated the state’s energy efficiency standards and reduced its alternative energy mandates.
Federal investigators allege that House Speaker Larry Householder, who was ousted July 30, used a so-called “dark money” group called Generation Now to funnel bribes from companies identified by news outlets as FirstEnergy, and the coal company Murray Energy. Generation Now, which was also indicted, is considered a dark money group because it is a political non-profit and is not required to disclose its donors.
In exchange, the government claims that Householder got the nuclear bailout bill approved, and helped kill a referendum to repeal it.
Four others indicted on racketeering charges in the case have pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court. Householder’s arraignment has been delayed.
One of Many Roadblocks for Renewables in Ohio
House Bill 6 officially created the Ohio Clean Air program.
“It eviscerated the renewable energy standards in Ohio,” Karpinski said. “And it included a couple coal plants. How could you possibly pass a clean air bill and subsidize coal plants?”
Karpinski’s own project, called Icebreaker Wind, would be the first offshore wind project in Lake Erie. He negotiated for years, and signed an agreement with the staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), which authorizes new power projects.
But the final decision in May included a surprise, requiring that the turbines be turned off at night much of the year to monitor the impact on birds.
“We were extremely frustrated with the result,” said Randi Leppla, vice president of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council. She assisted with state negotiations for nearly two years, discussing why that condition would make the project unworkable.
“It’s yet another example of clean energy efforts being thwarted in the state of Ohio for reasons that we don’t know,” Leppla said. “It didn’t make sense to us.”
And last year, OPSB delayed two solar farm projects, and then placed new requirements on them, which Leppla calls unprecedented.
“The Ohio Power Siting Board has taken a tougher line on some of the renewables projects, in our opinion, than on other forms of generation,” she said.
The Lobbyist Who Became Ohio’s Top Utility Regulator
Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy advocacy group, points out that Sam Randazzo, chairman the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and of the Ohio Power Siting Board, has had his hand in all of this.
“He is known as a fairly strong anti-wind zealot,” Anderson said.
Randazzo not only lobbied for industrial energy users and utility companies, his annual financial disclosure statement filed in February to the Ohio Ethics Commission states that he owns two consulting companies. Both have been reported to have done business with FirstEnergy. He also helped draft earlier legislation to freeze Ohio’s renewable energy mandates.
According to Anderson, Randazzo’s appointment last year as the state’s top utility regulator is indicative of Ohio’s energy policy.
“I think it’s all part of a bigger picture of opposition to renewable energy,” he said. “And House Bill 6 was the ultimate get for opponents of renewables in Ohio.”
Randazzo declined repeated requests to comment for this story. A spokesman for OPSB said since the Icebreaker Wind decision is under appeal, the chairman cannot speak on these issues.
Cozy relationships between utility companies and lawmakers are not unique to Ohio. Last month, the utility ComEd, a subsidiary of Exelon, admitted to a long running bribery scheme in Illinois.
What Happens Now That House Bill 6 is the Center of a Federal Bribery Case?
Republican state senator Matt Dolan of suburban Cleveland wants Ohio to be open to all forms of energy, and open for business in general.
He voted yes on HB 6 to support the nuclear plants, and he’s one of 32 lawmakers who have asked the state to reconsider the Lake Erie wind project. “You can’t have millions of dollars being spent on a project that can be killed at the last moment with a poison pill that no one even knows is coming,” Dolan said. “That is just a wet blanket over future investment, way beyond the energy field.”
OPSB could reconsider that project at its meeting later this month, and the new speaker of the Ohio House is currently considering a repeal of House Bill 6.
This story has been updated to add detail about Sam Randazzo’s consulting companies.