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Shaping the future of energy: A look at Ohio’s renewable energy sustainability challenges

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At a recent Global Shapers Cleveland Hub forum on Shaping the Future of Energy, the conversation centered around the Ohio’s renewable energy future, its innovators, challenges with carbon emissions and opportunities.

The guests for the event, which was moderated by Global Shapers member Ale Watson, featured Jing Lyon, entrepreneur programs director at BRITE Energy Innovators, Nicole Stika, senior business developer with Sustainability Solutions at World Kinect Energy Services, Russ Bates, CEO of NxtGen Clean Energy Solutions, and Chad Stephens, an energy consultant and conservation program coordinator with Sierra Club Ohio.

The speakers engaged in an informed discussion about how their businesses and organizations deal with renewable energy challenges in the United States and locally, and what Ohioans face regarding climate change, global warming, and renewable energy demands.

The group also talked about how they could work together to educate both elected officials and residents on the importance of these issues; on navigating the costs; and helping local businesses plan for the future of clean energy.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the energy industry today?

In discussing how to make the case for sustainable energy in Northeast Ohio, Sierra Club’s Stephens says this is something that has always eluded him.

“Through the Sierra Club, we have a campaign that focuses on training residents to speak with their elected officials to help their elected officials to make that choice,” he explains.

He says his organization works with residents on making their elected officials responsive to the importance of clean energy.

“A lot of times we do training for elected officials, but I’m not going to make that pitch,” Stephen says. “It should really come from the people that put them in office.”

According to World Kinect’s Stika added, “The year 2030, which has been out there for many years, is now only seven years away.” She says in those next seven years we need to step up the attention to reducing emissions.

“When a lot of this work was getting started, even just in the city of Cleveland, which seemed like 100 years away—now it’s really on our heels,” she explains. “To think that we need to have our emissions in half by 2030 is a daunting task. We are nowhere close to reaching those goals. The first, and most critical, step is tackling carbon emissions.

Sitka says there was a significant decline in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shut down of businesses and schools, but there was rebound in 2021 with emissions nearly returning to 2019 levels.

“The need to accelerate initiatives to do things from energy efficiency to renewable energy solutions has never been more critical as well as putting in place all these advanced technologies,” she says, adding that producing more energy at a lower cost, with lower emissions, should also be a focus.

“No surprise from sustainable aviation fuel to a myriad of others, using various feedstocks, the supply needs to meet the demand faster,” she emphasizes. “Which brings me to investment in energy technologies to support our energy transition. For instance, renewables are projected to account for more than 30% of the global investment.”

For electricity to become emission free, Sitka says we must move further towards renewable energy—meaning wind, solar, and biofuels—which means renewables have been projected to lead this power generation mix, reaching 80 to 90% of consumed power by the year 2050.

What are some of the most innovative and exciting solutions you’ve seen in the renewable energy industry in recent years, particularly any local examples?

NxtGen’s Bates offered his thoughts first. “It’s been more the solar efficiency and the economics that have come with it,” he says. “I think of wind and the traditional wind turbines that you see towering above the landscape. But there’s also micro wind turbines that technology is continuing to improve. As far as locally, I think of Tony Friscone and CZAR-Power and the inverter and EV charging tied to the grid and renewable energies.” 

Bates continued to talk about the role companies of all sizes can play in renewable energies. “I think that’s fantastic. I’ll plug another local company here, Venture Forward Strategies, which does some amazing work on what Nicole [Sitka] was talking about on climate disclosure,” he says.  “It kind of flows up and down the supply chain. It’s not just these publicly traded companies, it’s these mom-and-pop shops that provide for publicly traded companies. A lot of them aren’t ready, and they haven’t thought about it because they don’t think it really pertains to them. The truth is it really will.”

What are the challenges that exist for renewable energy, growing as a part of Ohio’s energy portfolio?

“The biggest problem I see is the utility monopoly we’ve seen what’s happened with that—it’s not just Ohio,” Bates says. “Florida has the law that [Power Purchase Agreements] (PPAs) aren’t allowed in my home state of Indiana. They just decided against net metering. It went in place in the middle part of last year. Now net metering is no longer allowed in that state, they’re going backwards. Community solar isn’t allowed in the State of Ohio yet.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, community solar is defined as any solar project or purchasing program within a neighborhood, in which the benefits of a solar project flow to multiple customers such as individuals, businesses, or nonprofit groups.

“If you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I wasn’t a believer in clean energy—it just wasn’t feasible for me at that time,” admits Bates. “Plus, I was surrounded by fossil fuel folks, so that’s what I heard. As I got out and started educating myself, I realized there’s some great advancements in this tech.”

Stika adds, “Ohio cannot continue to go backward in terms of energy policy supporting the initiatives and supporting our entrepreneurs and companies that want to move into the State of Ohio.”

In fact, many of these companies now demand that if you want their business, they want solar or wind energy on the property.

“But when we have to fight with the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) regarding setbacks and net metering, and so forth, that does not make our state as business friendly as it should be,” Sitka says. “And that’s outside of the technological advancements of having battery storage match the renewable energy requirements.”

Battery energy storage systems (BESS), are devices that enable energy from renewables, like solar and wind, to be stored and then released when customers need power most.

What resources exist in Northeastern Ohio, for entrepreneurs interested in green innovation?

BRITE Energy’s Lyon answered. “Not to make it about BRITE, but we are the only energy tech incubator in the state and [it’s] part of why I joined the organization a year ago,” he explains. “Because 10 years ago, when I was trying to start my own energy tech company, there was a total lack of support for these types of companies.”

BRITE works with a network of corporations, universities, and nonprofits across Ohio that are supporting our mission.

What are the most important steps we can take as a local community to transition to a more sustainable energy system?

“It all starts with education because it’s a complex system and there’s a lot of organizations looking at the full circular economy and circular cities,” Lyon says.

Stika adds that some of the biggest recommendations that are coming focus on the need to have a consortium of county leaders to drive the plan. “But this means that we need to bring together public and private stakeholders to inform the plans moving forward as well,” she says.

What do you all think are the most important steps we can take as a local community to transition to a more sustainable energy system?

The panelists agreed that with the transition to renewable energy, there are economic and environmental benefits that the public must be made aware of.

However, there are costs. The group agrees there are many financing and funding tools people need to know about, but the tax credits, which serve as a barrier to low-income residents who must wait until the next year to get them, must be removed.

With seniors having to choose between food, rent, and medication, what do they do about their furnace or their oven? Will the tax credit help them purchase a new furnace or stove? The answer is education according to the panelists.

Sierra Club’s Stephens suggests, “Getting out and knocking on doors to really have that kind of conversation makes a big difference for community relations, as far as being able to change how people are speaking on it.”

Lyon cautions that it can’t be assumed that companies know what they are doing with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing, which refers to a set of standards for a company’s behavior used by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments.

She recalls working with a manufacturer who asked what ESG is. “We have so much further to go,” Lyon says. “It’s not reaching decision makers and owners of medium and large manufacturers, which is the core of our economy and if we’re not making the needle more there, we have a long journey ahead of us.”

Bates says that not every elected official or business owner and operator is familiar with the issues of sustainability. “Maybe a company has a corporate sustainability person, maybe a council has that sustainability committee,” he says. “That’s all great, and I applaud that, but they don’t really know. Most of our client base, they have an idea, or they don’t have an idea at all.”

They don’t know how to put a plan together or what the actual goals mean. “We all have our day jobs which, you know, are focused on sustainability and clean energy and that transition,” he said.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) incentivizes clean energy and equity-centered environmental investments. “These funds can create over 900,000 new jobs in clean manufacturing,” says Stephens. “But it doesn’t happen if we don’t go out and educate.” 

The discussion was filled with information for those who are familiar with sustainability, renewable energy, carbon emissions, and other issues. But for those who were not, it was an opportunity to learn about these issues and how to get involved.

View and read the original story by Charlotte Morgan for FreshWater Cleveland here.

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