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Issue 1: Columbus Leaders Ask Voters To Pass Clean Energy Ballot Measure

The Columbus skyline, including the AEP headquarters, at night.
Ryan Hitchcock
The Columbus skyline, including the AEP headquarters, at night.

This election, the city of Columbus is looking to implement a community choice aggregation program through Issue 1. If passed on November 3, the ballot measure would allow the city to procure power from an energy supplier on behalf of small businesses and residents who haven’t chosen to go with a different one. 

Mayor Andrew Ginther says that supplier would be Columbus-based AEP Energy, which would lock in most of Columbus as a customer for the next 15 years.

“Ultimately (AEP) was chosen because of their track record and our goal of getting to 100% renewable in such a short timeframe,” Ginther says.

According to the memorandum of understanding between the city and AEP, the energy provider plans to build or be the contractor for $1 billion in new wind and solar energy generation. This would be fed into the grid in amounts equal to Columbus’ total electricity load.

That energy alternative would supplant less clean energy sources like natural gas and coal.

Why Make Residents "Opt Out"

Community choice aggregation programs are currently approved in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, as well as a number of smaller communities in Ohio.

“It is an opportunity for the city of Columbus to become one of the largest community aggregation programs outside of the state of California,” Ginther argues.

It would also be the third-biggest municipal aggregation program in the country, and the largest in Ohio and the Midwest.

Aggregation does not require tax increases, Ginther says, because pooling customers together increases their purchasing power.

“There are no new taxes, and you can opt out at any time,” Ginther says.

Since Columbus has chosen an “opt out” rather than "opt in" program, every eligible small business and residential customer would automatically be enrolled with AEP. According to the company's proposal, that’s about 260,000 customers.

This isn't uncommon: Most community choice aggregation programs operate with an “opt out” option, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Some programs do ask customers to proactively enroll in the program, but they are generally less successful in terms of participation rates.

Ohio State associate professor Jeff Bielicki says behavioral economics indicates that an “opt out” program has the highest chance to create change in how consumers use energy.

“We tend to stick with the default option when presented with things,” he says.

Bielicki runs the Energy Sustainability Research Laboratory, where students research the intersection of renewable energy practices and policy. He supports aggregation, but says Columbus' plan may be overly ambitious in a state where it’s hard to pass energy reforms.

“I worry about, in Ohio we’ve got one of the most restrictive setback rules for wind turbines," Bielicki says. "And basically, what it means is you can’t build a wind turbine within 1,300 feet of property line. That’s basically a quarter of a mile.”

That would work out to one wind turbine per half-mile by half-mile plot. In other Midwestern states, wind turbines are making up a more significant portion of energy production.

“Whereas our neighbors like Indiana, which has roughly the same topography, they’ve got much more wind generation than we do," He says. "Illinois has got much more wind generation.”

From 2012-2018, Ohio’s wind generation increased by 765,000 megawatt hours. That's far short of Indiana, whose wind generation increased by 2.2 million megawatt hours in the same timeframe.

Total wind energy generation among Great Lakes states, according to the Department of Energy.
Credit Courtesy of Jeffrey M. Bielicki / The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University
Total wind energy generation among Great Lakes states, according to the Department of Energy.

The Impact On Columbus

AEP president Scott Slisher is confident they’ll have the wind energy to make it work, and he claims the program would bring new jobs to Ohio.

“This visionary program could require over 700 megawatts of new solar and wind generation in the state of Ohio,” Slisher said at a press conference in August. “That represents over $1 billion of new investment in the state as well as new opportunities and hundreds of construction jobs.”

A subsidiary of AEP donated $1.5 million to the city’s political campaign for Issue 1. Environmental groupslike Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund and Power a Clean Future Ohio are supporting and financially backing the measure, as well. 

“Issue 1 could lower carbon emissions by 1.2 million megatons, or 19% of our total,” says Cathy Cawan Becker, who chairs the Ohio Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Columbus campaign. “And that’s unheard of for a single program.”

Becker cites a statistic that cities are responsible for about 70% of the world’s carbon emissions.

If voters pass Issue 1, then AEP must work with the city to develop a "master supply agreement" in line with the city’s goal of 100% green energy by 2022.

In an email, Columbus Mayoral Spokeswoman Robin Davis said, “If AEP Energy fails to meet the goal, the city has the right to go with another supplier who will meet our requirements.”

Below is the full Issue 1 ballot text:

Shall the City of Columbus have the authority to aggregate the retail electric loads located within the incorporated areas of the City, to support local clean energy generation, energy savings, and Columbus’s sustainable economy and for that purpose, enter into service agreements to facilitate for those loads the sale and purchase of electricity, such aggregation to occur automatically except where any person elects to opt-out, in accordance with Section 4928.20 of the Ohio Revised Code and Ordinance No. 1642-2020 adopted by the Council?

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.