A city council plan to rebate 85 percent of $2.6 million in Renewable Energy Credits to Oberlin utility customers was short-circuited Monday due to questions about how the remainder would be spent.
Council members Bryan Burgess, Sharon Pearson, and Linda Slocum voted against the plan, saying they support re-investing the money for long-term savings through conservation and energy efficiency initiatives.
Councilman Scott Broadwell, who sponsored the plan, council president Ron Rimbert, and councilwoman Sharon Soucy were in favor. They said customers were overcharged to meet Oberlin’s goal of being carbon-free by 2050 and are owed the money.
Councilman Kelley Singleton was the tiebreaker. He said he supported Broadwell’s plan, but voted no.
Singleton said city and Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System officials haven’t made clear how the approximately $390,000 remainder that would go into Oberlin Municipal’s $1.6 million sustainable reserve fund would be spent.
The fund, established in 2007, is a grant-based program paying for energy improvements such as LED lighting, cooling and heating upgrades, and weatherization programs. Critics of the fund say it’s been under-promoted.
“The city has a communication problem,” Singleton said. “I believe in the 85-15 split, but I think it’s also very important for clarity (for) the public, to let them know (how) this process is going to be moving forward.”
The credits are pollution offsets. OMLPS sold them on the market to energy companies allowing them to be in compliance with stricter state clean energy standards without actually producing more clean energy.
One credit represents 1,000 killowatt hours, or one megawatt hour, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. A megawatt — one million watts — provides energy to about 600 homes annually.
Oberlin Municipal, expected to generate 87 percent of its electricity fossil-free by next year, has been buying landfill gas and wind energy, which costs more than coal, a major cause of disease, global warming, and pollution.
Customers paid an extra $1.8 million between 2012 and last year for clean energy, according to Steve Dupee, Oberlin Municipal director.
Law director Jon Clark said the nonprofit utility is not legally required to rebate customers. But Soucy argued they were morally obligated to because customers were overcharged. Not doing so “erodes the trust in city government,” she said.
Soucy said the rebate would serve as a “cushion” against expected rate increases. Dupee has said the average residential customer in 2o13 paid about $900 annually and will pay $1,149 yearly next year, an approximately 27 percent increase.
Soucy said low electric rates were “critical” to attracting and retaining businesses. And she noted customers have the choice of allowing the rebate to be paid into the reserve fund or keeping it.
Soucy cited Kendal at Oberlin, the retirement community whose board has proposed returning its $92,040 rebate. Like Kendal, Rimbert said his family has decided to return the rebate.
“But that is our choice,” he said. “That’s where I’m at with this whole thing. It should be choice.”
The biggest rebate beneficiaries would be OMLPS’ largest customers. At $415,081, Oberlin College would receive the biggest rebate followed by the Federal Aviation Administration at $181,011.
Kendal is third followed by the Lorain County JVS at $75,075 and Wal-Mart at $64,428. However, average annual rebates for residential customers are only about $90 and would expire after three or four years, said Doug McMillan, Oberlin Municipal’s energy services manager.
Pearson contended the split is a short-sighted, quick-fix. She argued investing the credits in energy-saving measures would reduce pollution and reap long-term savings.
“My personal motto is to leave people better off than when I found them,” Pearson said. “I don’t want to do that temporarily.”
Pearson said council needs to “seriously consider” the dozens of suggestions residents have made at public hearings on the credits. Speakers, including about a dozen Monday night, have overwhelmingly favored reinvesting most of the money. Suggestions include municipal infrastructure upgrades such as LED lighting, expanding residential weatherization programs, and more energy audits to find savings.
Burgess, who unsuccessfully proposed a 50-50 split to Broadwell as a compromise, said the 85-15 split is “driving a wedge” through council and the community. He said the credits are owned collectively, not individually, by residents.
“The public overwhelmingly wants to see these REC dollars reinvested back into the community, back into our businesses and our homes,” he said. “This is our money as a community. There’s no individual ownership of these funds.”
Another vote on the credits hasn’t been set. It could come as early as the next council meeting on June 20.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.