The order agrees that spending should be open to review but first requires the company to review itself. This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join our free mailing list or the mailing list for the Energy New Network as this helps us provide more public service reporting. Regulators are requiring FirstEnergy to show that its Ohio utility ratepayers didn’t foot the bill, “directly or indirectly,” for political or charitable spending in support of the state’s nuclear and coal bailout bill. Yet that order is much more lenient than the state’s official consumer advocate had sought.
Here’s what’s at stake as Ohio lawmakers debate whether and how to repeal the bailout law at the heart of an alleged $60 million conspiracy case. This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join our free mailing list or the mailing list for the Energy New Network as this helps us provide more public service reporting. A bill to repeal Ohio’s nuclear bailout law has languished for more than a month so far, and signs suggest that House leadership may be angling to defer or stop such efforts as Election Day draws near. Lawmakers filed repeal bills soon after the arrest of former speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) and others in July.
Starting in January, House Bill 6 will require ratepayers to pay approximately $1 billion over the course of six years for subsidies that FirstEnergy had sought for two Ohio nuclear plants.
One year into his first term, Ohio’s top utility regulator, Samuel Randazzo, has signaled that winning approval to build and operate wind and solar projects in the state could be even more difficult in the future. At the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the Ohio Power Siting Board, which Randazzo also chairs, recent decisions have blocked a new solar development and imposed new restrictions on wind energy — moves consistent with Randazzo’s longtime criticism of renewables as a registered lobbyist and lawyer representing heavy industry before the utilities commission. Also, the commission is now defending Ohio’s decision to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants in a filing before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — an about-face from its stance in 2017 opposing a federal bailout of old coal and nuclear plants.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s 2019 appointment of Randazzo, a veteran energy lawyer and lobbyist, followed a rapid and opaque approval process that overlooked two of Randazzo’s ongoing small consulting companies, both of which have done business with FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, (now Energy Harbor) federal bankruptcy records show.
Randazzo declined an interview request to comment on the companies or to elucidate what he sees as the PUCO’s mission.
Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston, the state’s voice for residential utility consumers, has been pushing to reform the nomination process for the PUCO, noting that the majority of commission members are either former employees of power companies or have represented them.
And while Randazzo has not always been at odds with consumer advocates, his long opposition to renewable energy is making its mark in Ohio regulatory decisions. Sam Randazzo (Photo Credit: the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio)
A long hostility to clean energy
Randazzo told state lawmakers during his 2019 confirmation hearing that as a commissioner he would have no view for or against any particular technology — despite a pattern of publicly criticizing renewable energy.
As chair of the Public Utilities Commission, he testified before lawmakers last year on Ohio House Bill 6, which authorized subsidies for nuclear and coal generation but basically gutted the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. His comments stressed the cost of the standards but not their benefits.
FirstEnergy Solutions paid nearly $2 million to at least one group, but most other data remains hidden. After-the-fact filings show that FirstEnergy’s generation subsidiary paid nearly $2 million to Generation Now, one of the special interest groups that orchestrated ads, political donations and other efforts behind Ohio’s nuclear and coal bailout. But legal loopholes make it harder to find out the total spent and who else was behind xenophobic advertising, dueling voter petitions, alleged intimidation and other claims of foul play. And none of those actions fully disclosed who was behind them. The scant public filings that are available show additional connections to FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor), as well as the law firm of an outspoken legislator who has long fought the state’s clean energy standard, and others with high-level political influence.
Nuclear and coal bailout is the latest in a line of favorable policy actions that shield noncompetitive plants from competition. Utility, nuclear and coal interests are big players in Ohio politics, giving about $3 million to Ohio political campaigns in 2018, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. The industry interests have long been active politically. But just as competitive markets began coming into their own around 2010, the pattern of campaign contributions also shifted. Donations to Ohio campaigns from the utility, nuclear and coal industries in 2010 were more than double the amount for 2008.
FirstEnergy foray into energy brokering raises issues of fair competition
A FirstEnergy subsidiary is seeking permission from Ohio regulators to advise customers on which electricity suppliers they should choose. The company’s application to operate as an energy broker and aggregator is an apparent reversal for FirstEnergy, which spent years legally separating from its non-regulated electricity businesses, including its former generation subsidiary. Critics say the move raises potential conflict of interest questions. It also comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would broaden the range of services that regulated utilities could offer customers. FirstEnergy owns three regulated utilities in Ohio: Ohio Edison, Toledo Edison and the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company.