Renewable Energy Power-Up For Northeast Ohio

You’re purchasing a lot more renewable energy this year, most likely, thanks to the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC).

Beginning this month, NOPEC member cities including Lakewood are changing their default electricity supplier, from FirstEnergy Solutions to NextEra. It’s a nearly invisible transition for the individual household; bills still arrive from The Illuminating Company, rates aren’t increasing, and there is no action to complete. Unless you opt out of it, your electric bill payments automatically go toward 50% renewable power, now.

This places NOPEC and its membership well ahead of Ohio’s current goal—which recently went back into force after a two-year “freeze”—of 12.5% electricity from renewable sources by 2027. The partnership with NextEra effectively leapfrogs that goal in replacing FirstEnergy Solutions, which supplied renewable content of only a few percent.

The fact that electric power and electric bills continue to arrive from The Illuminating Company, which is a part of FirstEnergy just as FirstEnergy Solutions is, demonstrates a little of the hidden complexity in modern deregulated utility services. Between electricity’s arrival at your home, and the companies which generate it, a host of buyers, sellers, aggregators and regulators are all at work.

NOPEC is an aggregator. Combining the purchasing power of more than 200 cities and towns in 13 Northeast Ohio counties, it works to negotiate better electricity and natural gas rates. Mayors organized NOPEC in 1999 to take advantage of market deregulation, and Lakewood was a founding member. Since then the not-for-profit organization, managed by volunteer directors, has grown into the largest utility aggregator in the United States. NOPEC negotiates on behalf of every household and small business customer in member communities, unless a customer actively opts out.

Its new agreement with NextEra follows the breakdown of a nine-year contract with FirstEnergy Solutions, which NOPEC negotiated in 2010. When industry rumor suggested FirstEnergy Solutions might declare bankruptcy, if unsuccessful in a campaign to raise and re-regulate electricity rates, NOPEC pressed for guarantees of supply security. After disagreements between the two briefly went to court, FirstEnergy Solutions announced in October that it would terminate its contract with NOPEC in January 2017.

Over the next several weeks, letters advised NOPEC customers that electricity service would continue uninterrupted, one way or another; at one point Lakewood officials suggested that a temporary extension with FirstEnergy Solutions was on the way.

Instead, NOPEC completed “a very abbreviated RFQ (Request for Qualifications) process,” in the words of its Executive Director Chuck Keiper. On November 7, it announced the result: a three-year agreement with NextEra, beginning in time for a seamless transition this month.

Somewhat like FirstEnergy, NextEra operates a handful of local subsidiary companies, although its total footprint is considerably larger. NextEra’s empire sprawls through more than half of the 50 states as well as four Canadian provinces, with combined generating capacity almost three times FirstEnergy’s. It’s also more invested in renewables than FirstEnergy, and less reliant on fossil fuels.

Under its agreement with NOPEC, NextEra will round up the renewable content of our electricity to an even 50% using Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Essentially, this means NextEra will purchase extra renewable power for the region from other suppliers; because electricity from all sources is identical once it enters the vast grid, the REC system assigns suppliers one certificate for each Megawatt-hour of renewable power they produce. Keeping track of RECs allows “downstream” users the choice of buying some of their electricity supply from a specifically renewable source.

The contract with NextEra lasts for three years, during which time NOPEC intends to carry out a slower, “very robust RFQ” for future options, according to Keiper. Whatever its result, however, its current partnership includes a further small but lasting push toward sustainable, clean power. Currently, NextEra’s renewable generating capacity consists largely of nuclear energy. But the agreement with NOPEC requires $10,000,000 of the eventual proceeds to fund construction of new capacity from entirely green sources such as solar and wind. By itself, this could purchase approximately three or four utility-scale wind turbines, though it will ultimately contribute to a much larger total “Green Era” construction fund at NextEra.

In the bigger picture, even 50% renewable electricity is admittedly modest progress toward the zero-carbon economy which scientists, business leaders, governments and environmental groups have called for achieving within a few decades’ time at most. The overall fuel mix “powering” Lakewood and other NOPEC communities still includes buildings mostly heated with natural gas, and vehicles mostly running on petroleum.

Nonetheless, NOPEC’s agreement with NextEra suggests how much is already within easy reach, given that it will deliver a significantly cleaner and more sustainable energy mix without customers spending a single extra penny.

For the first half of 2017 NOPEC customers will pay fixed rates, comparable to those from the former FirstEnergy Solutions contract. In The Illuminating Company service area, residential customers’ rate is 4.907¢ per kWh and business customers’ is 4.978¢. After June, NOPEC customers can sign up to continue the fixed-rate service for a longer term, but the default option will be a variable rate about five percent less than comparable, individual rates from the local utility provider (FirstEnergy Solutions). Along with a recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, concluding that such higher costs as renewable energy does involve are more than repaid by related savings, NOPEC’s deal with NextEra suggests less and less economic incentive for fossil fuel use, even if political agendas are another matter.

Meanwhile, for any budget, there are options for further reducing your dependence on limited and polluting fuel resources. Although NOPEC is Lakewood residents’ default supplier, anyone who buys electricity can go shopping independently. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio offers a listing of eligible suppliers at energychoice.ohio.gov including a handful of companies with 100% renewable products. Depending on income and electricity consumption, these can be surprisingly affordable.

For leaner budgets, it’s worth remembering that cutting back on energy use always means cutting back on energy costs, and using less of NOPEC’s 50% nonrenewable energy can also save money. The not-for-profit NOPEC is happy to help, too. As part of its mission to reduce communities’ utility bills, it promotes energy efficiency steps which any household can benefit from. For a simple, graphic how-to visit www.nopecinfo.org/tip-house/energy-saving-tips

Matt Kuhns

Matt Kuhns is a freelance graphic designer, and occasional author.

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Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 2:16 PM, 01.24.2017