TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — In a last-ditch attempt to give a financial lifeline to Ohio's two nuclear plants, lawmakers announced a plan Friday that would add a surcharge to every electric bill in the state.
Backers of the plan said it would generate $300 million each year for clean energy production, but they also think it should end up saving most customers money because it calls for getting rid of renewable energy mandates that add on extra charges.
The idea, supported by the leader of the Republican-controlled Ohio House, drew immediate criticism from groups that favor renewable energy such as wind and solar and those who say the plan too heavily favors the nuclear plants.
"Investment is more likely to happen if Ohio has a comprehensive energy policy that creates an equal playing field for all energy sources," said Bill Stanley of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio.
The surcharge would add $2.50 to monthly residential bills while commercial customers and businesses would pay more. Industrial users, for example, would see a $250 per month increase.
About half of the money from the surcharge would go to the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo and the Perry plant near Cleveland that produce 14 percent of the state's electricity. The rest would go to expanding Ohio's clean energy sector.
Both plants are slated to close by 2021 unless their operator, FirstEnergy Solutions, can find a buyer or the government eases the cost of operating them.
The plants — like many of the nation's aging nuclear reactors — are expensive to operate and maintain and struggle to compete with cheaper natural gas plants and renewable energy.
New York, New Jersey and Illinois already have given billion-dollar bailouts — which will be funded by customers — to stop unprofitable nuclear plants in those states from closing prematurely.
Up until now, lawmakers in Ohio and former Gov. John Kasich were unwilling to subsidize the state's two plants along Lake Erie.
Backers of the plants say closing them would make Ohio too dependent on natural gas and take away a reliable source of energy. It also would mean the loss of at least 1,500 jobs and millions in tax money for schools and local governments.
Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder said Friday the legislative proposal that would create the Ohio Clean Air Program is about more than saving the nuclear plants.
He said it would provide incentives to produce zero-carbon electricity and boost efforts to have an "all of the above" approach to energy sources. He also said it was important that the proposal was good for the state's industrial base.
"This program will steer our state in the right energy and clean air direction," he said.
But several environmental groups said the proposal was nothing more than a bailout for the nuclear plants and said it will slow down efforts to expand the clean energy industry.
"The proposed legislation misses the mark by prioritizing the bailout of two old, economically uncompetitive nuclear power plants rather than creating jobs and protecting our natural habitats in Ohio through clean energy investment," said Frank Szollosi, a policy director with the National Wildlife Federation.
Lawmakers will be under a tight deadline to get the proposal approved because FirstEnergy Solutions must decide this summer whether to commit to closing or refueling the Davis-Besse plant.