Worthington voters could see a Nov. 6 ballot issue that would give them the option to invest in clean and renewable energy sources.
Many details are uncertain, but like the city's purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates earlier this year, for now the investment likely would be in the industry and its technology rather than direct use of "green" electricity to power their homes.
In March, Worthington City Council members David Robinson and Doug Smith introduced a plan for a renewable-energy aggregation program for residents. The program would pool residents' buying power to lower costs in theory while supporting the generation of energy from companies selling wind- or solar-generated energy.
The plan, according to Robinson and Smith, is to create a ballot issue that launches the program and allows for a no-cost opt-out option for residents. Opt-out aggregation programs – in which residents automatically would be enrolled and would have to choose not to participate in the program – require approval by residents in a citywide ballot issue, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's website.
Smith said he had been searching for years for such a program, but technology and "the market" were not in line. Now, he said, he thinks the plan not only is plausible but would have a positive effect for the city and residents.
He compared it to last year's debates over solar panels in the city's historic district and said this plan could affect far more homes. Last May, Worthington City Council approved a resolution that amends the design guidelines for regulation of solar panels within the city's architectural-review district. The new guidelines dictate front-facing panels "are to be strongly discouraged" but panels should be allowed if they do not "alter the historic character of the property," conform to the roof's shape or appear, from the street, as one cohesive unit covering the entire area of a portion of the roof.
"We were thinking, 'Gosh, how many people does that (solar-panel conversation) really impact?' It impacts some people, but not that many in the community," he said. "But this energy aggregation would affect many more people in the community."
Smith said the ultimate goals would be to reduce residents' energy bills by $100 to $150 per year on average and "to promote a renewable-energy product, which gets the city sourced with 100 percent renewable energy for electric."
With the proposal in its infancy, specifics about the potential ballot issue are unclear. Costs, logistics and other details of such an aggregation program also are uncertain.
At their March 12 meeting, council members directed city officials to research the idea, interview consultants and asses the feasibility of the program before returning to council with a recommendation sometime this spring.
City Manager Matt Greeson said he already has interviewed a collection of consultants.
If the aggregation program were adopted, it likely would be similar to the city's largely symbolic use of Renewable Energy Certificates, he said.
"It would likely be Renewable Energy Certificates, as opposed to energy directly supplied form a renewable source located in Ohio just because, at this juncture, I think the most cost-effective way to purchase renewables is through the REC process, as opposed to directly in the current market," Greeson said.
The difference between RECs and the direct use of clean and renewable energy sources is not enough to bother Smith and Robinson. Neither said they minded.
"I view it as supporting the market, which is supporting the technology," Robinson said. "As a hypothetical, if 50 percent of residential users bought RECs, would that not create a tremendous groundswell of production of clean energy?
"So it's doing our part in Worthington to promote clean-energy production."
In January, Worthington purchased 3,092 megawatt-hours – the estimated power the city will need for the year for its facilities, street lights and lights at such public spaces as tennis courts – of RECs from Colorado-based energy company Renewable Choice Energy.
According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, each REC represents a megawatt-hour of renewably generated energy. The sources for the RECs can be wind turbines, solar panels or hydropower. The certificates denote that energy purchased will be from a renewable energy source.
Because infrastructure is not yet in place to bring electricity from renewable sources into Ohio, the RECs earmark electricity spending to be used toward funding those renewable sources.
Greeson said the city spent $2,720 to purchase the RECs.
City spokeswoman Anne Brown said the city still expects to spend about $520,000 with AEP this year.
The REC purchases are separate from Worthington's energy use because the city is not on a power grid supplied by renewable sources, Brown said previously. Worthington still will use distributor American Electric Power and supplier Capital Energy, with the RECs serving as an "investment" in clean energy sources, she said.
"In an effort to invest in wind energy – because we can't invest in wind energy directly – we purchase these certificates to invest in that renewable resource," Brown said.
If a ballot issue were approved by City Council, Smith said, the city would begin hosting "public meetings and educational events" on the topic, while consultants from an energy company would provide services "at no cost to the city."
Smith admits he isn't sure exactly how the nuts and bolts of the program would work, but said he's happy to be kicking off the plan, even conceptually.
"The bottom line is that we're going to be supporting an industry that needs some support, we're going to be reducing the carbon footprint and increasing renewable energy viability and we're going to save residents money," he said.
Robinson said he jumped at the chance to help lead the discussion on a topic he called a "win-win-win" for Worthington.
"Buying clean-energy electricity citywide is the single biggest step we can take to quickly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "I think that will appeal to many residents. Plus, who wouldn't want a lower electric bill?"
Smith said that if City Council is satisfied by answers from a consultant and decides to move forward, he doesn't expect to see much pushback from voters, where he believes "everybody wins."
"I anticipate that if we educate and inform the residents appropriately, there's very little reason for somebody to be against this if they understand it," he said.
Robinson said he feels similarly.
"To me, this is an easy choice – doing the right thing with a slightly fatter wallet," he said.