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.

An official with the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Commission (SOPEC) brought an ordinance to the Athens City Council Monday that could wind up on the primary election ballot this May. The proposed “community solar program” includes “institutionalized steps” to help the city achieve its energy goals.

Eddie Smith, operations coordinator for SOPEC, explained the proposal to council members. “Over the next three years, the Energy Action Plan, which is a component of the Athens City Sustainability Plan, calls for several major energy goals.”

These goals, he said, include a 20 percent reduction in residential energy consumed within the city of Athens, a 20 percent increase in the share of residential and municipal energy consumed from renewable sources, and a 20 percent increase in installed solar capacity within the city.

By 2030, Smith added, the same plan calls for a 50 percent reduction, increase and increase for each of those same metrics, respectively. “These are phenomenal goals for improving sustainability,” he said. “While I’m not sure that we can get to 20 percent on some of these goals in the next three years, I do think we can start taking some of the first steps.”

The proposed plan outlines a carbon tax, which would be charged through SOPEC’s Opt-Out Electric Aggregation program, to incentivize Athens residents to conserve energy. “Community members in the city of Athens have long advocated for, and even in some cases have lobbied” for a state carbon tax, Smith said. “This is a way for us to actually do it locally.”

Council member Jeffrey Risner asked at the meeting how much residents would have to pay under the proposed tax.

“It would be a 2-mill carbon tax, which is equal to two-tenths of a penny per kilowatt hour, or $2 per megawatt hour,” Smith said in response. “The average home in Athens consumes about 800-900 kilowatt hours per month so the average home in Athens would pay between $1.60 and $1.80 per month from this carbon tax – unless this tax accomplishes its goal and incentivizes some conservation.”

Smith said Ohio University would have no obligations to pay the proposed tax because it would be instituted through the Opt-Out Electric Aggregation program. Because of its size and consumption level, the university is not eligible for that program.

“They would not have any tax obligations to (the ordinance), although perhaps they should,” Smith said, referring to OU.

Additionally, the plan includes the establishment of a local solar development fund, which “would be the depository for all carbon tax revenues” and would exclusively fund “behind-the-meter solar projects on public buildings in Athens,” including government buildings (Smith said the city holds 80 municipal electric utility accounts), school buildings, and other public buildings within city limits, Smith said.

“This is a chance for the city of Athens to be not just a leader in this region but statewide with the first municipally instituted carbon tax as well as an innovative use of those tax revenues for a community solar program,” Smith said.

A third component of the program would be a gradual shift in the issuance of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Currently, the city issues most of its RECs to a go-to source in Texas, but Smith said those RECs would “begin to be replaced by local solar renewable energy certificates” as the portfolio of local projects grows over time.

Mayor Steve Patterson told City Council he thinks the proposed legislation “is an interesting ordinance” that fits “perfectly” with the city’s local efforts to honor the Paris Climate Accord and the Sol Smart challenge, for which the city recently won a Bronze level award. “We’re operating at the residential level to help reduce our carbon emissions,” Patterson said. “I hope council looks at this carefully and seriously considers having this put as an initiative on the ballot.”

Council member Chris Fahl said she’s also thought about attempting to initiate a carbon tax on a regional level “with other communities that are in SOPEC,” and called the measure “a great step forward.”

“As Athens goes forward and becomes a model for this, maybe it could go into larger communities that do have more industry,” Fahl said. She called the proposal a great way to “have the people step forward… and to provide sanity to our government as opposed to other things that are going on.”

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