Connecting state and local government leaders
By introducing personal choice into the energy purchasing equation, Athens County is empowering residents to reduce their consumption.
ATHENS, Ohio — A council of county, municipal and village governments in Southeast Ohio has banded together in an effort to reduce energy costs, increase efficiency and promote the use of locally-generated alternative and sustainable energy.
Voters in Athens County, Ohio, and area villages and cities approved the formation of the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC) over the past several years to negotiate group purchasing power through electricity aggregation.
SOPEC did that and much more, retrofitting government buildings with energy-efficient lighting and windows, giving away 60,000 LED light bulbs to area residents, creating an electric vehicle loan program, starting a rental efficiency initiative and an energy education fund, and setting a long-term goal to construct a massive solar array on county property to generate renewable energy locally.
Many of these programs are being run through SOPEC partner UpGrade Athens County, which is competing with 50 other semi-finalists throughout the nation for a $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize, a two-year competition that challenges communities to reduce their energy consumption through innovation and community engagement.
UpGrade has even engaged AEP Ohio and Columbia Gas to launch a dual energy efficiency initiative. The Community Energy Savers program is designed to empower residents and businesses to reduce energy usage in their community by offering programs for weatherization, efficiency rebates and free in-home energy audits.
Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel has committed much of his time and energy to creating SOPEC and UpGrade during his first four years in office.
He said in an interview this week that to him SOPEC is about bringing conscious choice to purchasing energy and providing more opportunities to people trying to effect change through that process.
The UpGrade project, he said, highlights the power of energy efficiency, pointing to research out of Georgetown University that the biggest impact everyday people can have on America’s energy future is not finding new resources to use up–such as is the case with oil-and-gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking–but by finding ways to reduce energy consumption and use it more efficiently.
“Not very many people speak up for energy efficiency. But the people at Georgetown, they tell me the largest source of energy we have is energy efficiency and applying technology we already have in place: little things like LED light bulbs and home insulation, hybrid cars, and all these things that are reducing the demand,” Chmiel said.
Gary Gooseman, mayor of the village of Amesville, which is part of SOPEC, said that the council of governments was a great opportunity and the village overwhelmingly voted to join up in the effort.
“The people have saved money and everybody’s been pleased to be part of aggregation from the very beginning,” he said. “We were having the conversation already, but SOPEC was a big piece in bringing awareness about energy conservation.”
Gooseman said that in states where aggregation is allowable, the public option for aggregation should be explored.
“Often it can be a great first step for a community looking to take a deep dive into energy conservation and alternative energy and community organizing around those issues,” he said.
SOPEC Operations Coordinator Eddie Smith said that the council is currently focused on creating as much locally-owned renewable energy generation as possible. While part of that is creating environmentally-friendly energy alternatives, he said, the other big goal is to provide a boost to southeast Ohio’s economy.
“We’re trying to promote as much local generation as we can so that the generation dollars stay around here, and we’re trying to promote as much behind the meter as we can so that the utility, the distribution and the transmission dollars also stay down here,” he said. “We want people to reduce their energy consumption as much as they can, but when they do need energy, it makes sense for it to come from locally-owned renewable generation sites.”
Part of this effort has included working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer REDA grant funding for small farms and businesses looking to install solar arrays. REDA stands for “Renewable Energy Development Assistance” and covers 85 percent of site assessment costs and 25 percent of project development costs, Smith said.
SOPEC is also working with the USDA to promote grant funding through its Rural Energy for America Program, Smith said, which provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements.
Meanwhile, within its electricity aggregation agreement with AEP Ohio, Smith said, SOPEC negotiated terms so that 25 percent of the electricity used be generated from alternative and renewable sources.
A long-term plan is to develop a large-scale local solar array and a methane digester plant so that this alternative and renewable energy can also be generated locally.
“Our goal is to create a utility-scale solar field as well as a utility-scale methane digester,” he said. “Over the next several years we’d like to see significant progress on each of these projects.”
On the UpGrade side of the equation, Outreach Coordinator Mathew Roberts has a wide variety of programs in place meant to decrease consumption, increase efficiency, and position them to perhaps win the Georgetown Energy Prize.
SOPEC and UpGrade were formed with the idea that they would be able to reach beyond Athens County and become a regional force for energy efficiency and locally-generated alternative and sustainable energy, so most recently UpGrade has been reaching outside Athens County, Roberts said.
“We’re assessing regional businesses and agricultural producers in an eight-county region for solar, geothermal and biomass development,” he said, and they are working with local companies to do so, such as the Athens-based Third Sun Solar and Air Claws Heating & Cooling. “That’s our effort to merge agricultural development particularly with renewable energy, but it also gives us an opportunity to go into other communities and talk about electricity aggregation.”
This speaks to the larger theme of creating opportunities for communities at different levels, including counties, city and villages, to work together on these energy programs. The larger the pool of participating governments and people, the more power to get these things done and move toward a sustainable and independent energy future, Roberts said.
“It’s about showing the value of working with other government officials who are around you for a common purpose, which is really great,” he said. “It’s a neat model of getting county governments and local governments involved in making these decisions, and empowering them.”
In the end, Roberts said, UpGrade’s goal is about empowerment. UpGrade wants to transform the energy economy in southeast Ohio by engaging citizens in energy awareness, resulting in citizen action that reduces energy consumption, increases energy efficiency, spurs technological innovation, and improves long-term economic and environmental sustainability for the region, he said.
David DeWitt is a journalist based in Athens, Ohio, and is the Associate Editor for The Athens News. He previously worked at National Journal’s Hotline and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com.