Nuclear plant dilemma may swell local bills

Facing a possible bankruptcy by mid-2018, two nuclear plants in northern Ohio are behind coinciding bills before the Ohio House and Senate to provide for Zero-Emissions Nuclear (ZEN) resource program credits to require an imposition of additional costs to retail electric service customers.

Senate Bill 128 and House Bill 178 aim to create ZEN to ensure the diversity of electricity supply and suppliers. Proponents for the legislation say the bills “level the playing ground” for nuclear power production with other sources like coal, natural gas and renewables. But there are many aligned with the oil and gas industry also rising against the program through the bipartisan Coalition Against Nuclear Bailouts.

“It’s basically creating a $300 million bailout for nuclear energy in Ohio,” said Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers who recently joined the coalition against the ZEN program. “I’m against bailouts. Yes, we don’t have those plants servicing our area but who’s to say this doesn’t get extended?”

Commissioner Rick Walters said he is still doing research before signing his name onto the coalition but that all three commissioners had discussed the issue.

“I’d like to figure out all the angles first so I’m doing my own independent research,” he said.

Southern Ohio faces similar changes to electric bills if the newest proposed service plan from AEP Ohio is confirmed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio this summer.

FirstEnergy customers in northern and central Ohio could see up to a $5 mandatory increase on their bills to keep the nuclear plants open, while AEP Ohio customers could see an addition $8.40 per month increase on their bills.

“I’m not really a fan of House Bill 178 either,” said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, who serves on the House natural resources committee. “The proposed bailout isn’t tenable and really with the future of our energy generation coming from natural gas it doesn’t make sense to lock into $300 million each year for 16 years.”

Samantha Williams, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said while the council is not directly opposed to FirstEnergy, they believe the proposal’s claim to preserve resource diversity is disingenuous.

“If there was a commitment from them and the legislature to actually hold energy suppliers to the renewable portfolio standard, which right now is at a 12.5 percent requirement (of total energy produced) by 2027, then that would be a start. But to invest this money just to keep these plants open isn’t really a commitment to furthering clean energy and efficient energy use in Ohio.”

Currently the energy resource portfolio in Ohio consists of 59.2 percent coal-fired sourcing, 20.8 percent natural gas-fired, 15.5 percent nuclear, 2.7 percent renewables and 0.2 percent petroleum-fired.

Feathers blamed the state and national environmental protection agencies for placing limits on coal-fired power plants and distorting the free marketplace for energy consumption in Ohio.

“The EPA creates the problem and then the ratepayers pay for it,” said Feathers. “That’s picking winners and losers and that’s not what we’re supposed to do with people’s money.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the primary fuel for electricity generation in Ohio is coal, with eight of Ohio’s 10 largest power plants by capacity being coal-fired.

Second on the list is nuclear power, generated by the state’s two plants in Lake and Ottawa counties operated by FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company.

Those plants typically supply almost one-eighth of the state’s net generation according to the EIA.

Thompson said the argument for ZEN, that a diverse energy supply provides for a free market, discounts the strides being made to prop up current support of coal-fired plants and natural gas.

“The argument is yes, we need back up sources,” said Thompson. “But we’re in the middle of roll backs on mandates for coal and natural gas so why would we lock in for that length of time?”

FirstEnergy’s Generating Plants/Nuclear spokeswoman Jennifer Young said the program isn’t a bailout, but a way to ensure that the 90 percent of clean power generated in Ohio coming from nuclear plants remains viable, even if FirstEnergy isn’t the company to administer the resource.

“We would hope to see the legislation make it through the Ohio house and senate and be introduced to the governor this summer,” she said. “This is not about bailing out FirstEnergy but about making it possible for nuclear power to be on a level playing field with other sources in the state. If nuclear plants were to close down in Ohio, the state would see a rise in electricity costs of $277 million a year because we would become an even bigger importer of energy. So the cost of the plants closing must be considered too.”

According to the EIA Ohio is among the top 10 electric power generators in the nation and among the top five states in retail sales but because Ohio’s net generation does not meet state demand, Ohio is a net recipient of electricity from outside of the state.

By the numbers

Ohio energy consumption by resource:

¯ Petroleum-fired: 0.2 percent.

¯ Natural Gas-fired: 20.8 percent.

¯ Coal-fired: 59.2 percent.

¯ Nuclear: 15.5 percent.

¯ Renewables: 2.7 percent.

National average consumption by resource:

¯ Petroleum-fired: 0.3 percent.

¯ Natural gas-fired: 27.6 percent.

¯ Coal-fired: 33.5 percent.

¯ Nuclear: 21.2 percent.

¯ Renewables: 16.6. percent.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.