Local library patrons to do their reading by sunlight

Third Sun workers install solar panels on the Athens County Library in this file photo from 2013.

Athens city residents on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council’s proposed 0.2-cent carbon fee for city electrical users. The measure passed with 76.34 percent of the vote in Athens, with 1,410 votes. Only 437 voted against the advisory measure, just 23.66 percent.

Those are unofficial results, pending the counting of absentee and provisional ballots.

Proponents of the measure met at Jackie O’s Brew Pub on Tuesday night in anticipation of the election results, along with some people waiting to hear about the Alexander Local School District tax levy.

SOPEC Executive Director Eddie Smith said Wednesday morning that it was a “very solemn crowd” once the school-levy election results came in, “more determined” to keep fighting for the levy. Smith said, however, that he was still “thrilled about the landslide opinion or preference of Athens voters for paying for carbon.”

The new carbon fee will only apply to customers enrolled in the SOPEC Opt-Out Electric Aggregation Program, and will cost the average household $1.60 - $1.80 per month, assuming that household consumes the monthly average 800-900 kilowatt hours. The fee factors in some of the environmental and economic damages that result from carbon emissions, but is still less than 10 percent of what a “full carbon fee” would be, according to a SOPEC factsheet on the subject. A full carbon fee would cost between $21.60 and $24.30 per household per month, the factsheet states.

Customers can “completely offset that fee” by reducing at least 2 percent of their monthly consumption, according the factsheet. 

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said at a town hall meeting April 25 that the fee “is not a tax… it is an opt-out program.”

Though SOPEC “has the authority” to implement the fee without the consent of voters, “that’s not how we work,” Smith said at the same meeting last month.

Now that the fee has been approved, SOPEC can move forward with the next steps in the planning process. 

“Next would be working with Athens City Council and the Mayor’s office to plan out those public hearings,” Smith said, in reference to the two public meetings he previously has said will take place if the measure passed. Meetings with City Council regarding the public hearings probably will begin in June, Smith said, adding, “We’ll start trying to get the ball rolling on the next step.”

In addition to the benefits a community solar program would have for the city, Smith said he’s “extremely thrilled that we are going to be the first municipality in the entire United States that has figured out the carbon price problem” with an opt-in aggregation approach. “That is really a landmark… and we did it democratically.”

So far, Smith explained, the only municipalities in the U.S. that have tried to factor the costs of carbon emissions into the regular cost of energy have been municipal utilities, where “all the equipment” in the electric/energy system “is actually owned by the government.” That allows cities to charge whatever they want for energy, including an additional fee for carbon emissions. “In Ohio, there’s 84 municipal utilities and none of them have done a carbon fee,” Smith said.

The carbon fee in Athens will be the first of its kind, and the community solar program funded by the fee is an innovative use of funds, according to Smith. Luckily, city residents will have plenty of opportunities for input, he added.

The hearings are going to be very important so that we all arrive at the right rules,” Smith said. Important implementation questions about topics such as which buildings would be eligible for solar projects and whether the city could use the program to pay down debt on previously installed solar projects “need ironed out very publicly,” Smith said.

Given how much support voters have shown for the fee, “I think it’d be good to have much more than two hearings… so everyone’s got a chance” to have input, Smith said. “I think five might be what we’re going to do.” The details of how many hearings and “when and where” they will take place will have to be determined with city leaders, Smith said.

Two electric aggregation ballot proposals in Meigs County (but not carbon fees and not affiliated with SOPEC, like the proposal for Athens) lost by heavy margins in Tuesday’s Primary election. In the village of Middleport, the aggregation plan lost 124-214, and in Pomeroy, it lost 116-175.

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