Final Power Plant Decision: Council Votes Down Coal
After almost five hours of presentations and fierce debate, the Oberlin City Council voted four to three to withdraw its participation from the proposed 50-year contract for a pulverized coal plant in Meigs County, OH. Council President David Sonner and council members David Ashenhurst and Charles Peterson voted against the coal plant from the start, while vice-president Jack Baumann only voted to withdraw from the contract after a great deal of indecision. His swing vote decided the issue.
Before the meeting officially began, the consulting firm, Concentric Energy Advisors, presented the findings from their assessment of various energy options to the city council. The council had ordered this study in October when the data from the first study by R.W. Beck was deemed insufficient, and Oberlin College provided most of the finance. This presentation, along with a presentation from the Natural Resources Defense Council, were instrumental in the council’s final decision.
Councilman Ashenhurst expressed his admiration for the Concentric study and for all the information it brought to light.
“The study shows us how to get from here to there, and how to tread water in between,” he said. “I now see that market power is reliable. It’s there. The coal plant sounded like the risky direction to me. To start a pulverized coal plant now is ridiculous.”
Oberlin College’s Sustainability Coordinator, Nathan Engstrom, was also impressed with Concentric’s presentation, especially in the realm of cost. “What shocked people the most is the rising cost estimate of the coal plant,” he said. “It’s gone from under two billion to over three billion in only a year. If we had bought in now, who knows how much it would have cost by the time it was completed.”
Shannon Fisk, a representative from the midwest branch of the NRDC, presented before the council on the financial and environmental risks of the coal project. “Federal regulation on CO2 emissions is not a question of if, but when,” he said. “AMP-Ohio’s plant would burn 2.8 million tons of coal per year and produce over seven million tons of CO2, with no promise to capture it.” He noted other environmental risks, including mountaintop removal coal mining and cautioned the audience that global temperatures would rise between four and 11 degrees if humans took no steps to curb their pollution.
Representatives from American Municipal Power of Ohio, the corporation building the plant, presented next, calling the NRDC report “ridiculous” and assuring the audience that the plant would pollute far less than the one Oberlin currently maintains. Oberlin has been involved with AMP-Ohio from the organization’s start. Last night marked the city’s first rejection of an AMP-Ohio project.
Citizens of Meigs County, local business owners, religious leaders, students, faculty and concerned community members shared both data and personal experience. Elisa Young, a farm owner in Meigs County, looked at the contract from an environmental justice perspective, citing the severe health problems caused by the existing coal plants in the area. “There’s a disparity,” she said. “The people buying this cheap electricity will never feel the human and environmental effects. It’s sacrificing one community for another. How many Meigs County lives does it cost to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity?”
Several people used their turn at the microphone to express their support for the coal plant contract. Environmental ethics professor Tim Hall pushed for buying an even greater share in the plant. “Our challenge is to adapt to a global climate change, not to prevent it,” he said.
One local business owner noted that since business consumes 80 percent of Oberlin’s energy, it should have more of a say in this decision. “How can we expand when we don’t know where our energy will come from?” she asked.
Sonner noted that the results of the vote have drawn a lot of criticism. “By not looking at things the same old way, we’ve opened ourselves up to accusations that we’re irresponsible, that we’re taking too many chances. But the way I evaluate it, we have put ourselves in a position where we must discover new sources of power. Oberlin can do this. We can provide ourselves with locally produced green power and we’ll all be better off for it. Better off in the pocket book, better off in the air we breathe, better because we’ll be participating less in the destruction of the planet. We’ll show other communities how it’s done. Messianic? That’s the Oberlin style.”
With the decision made, all are looking towards the future, some with anticipation and some with uneasiness. “In turning this down we open up a full array of opportunities to serve the community better,” said Sonner. “I won’t say we’re fearless, because the truth is, we’re scared. But we’re happy-scared.”
College senior Benjamin Whatley, whose speech on town-gown relations received the longest applause of the evening, feels that the student role in this issue has been pivotal: “There is a prevalent attitude that students are meddling in the community, bullying the city on issues, voting for tax increases, etc. I wanted to set that straight because I feel that there are many students who are invested in this community, who, in the words of Marvin Krislov, are ‘inextricably intertwined’ with the City and College.”
When asked if he felt the student presence at the meeting made a difference, Sonner responded, “Hell, yes. We need you guys. Don’t let anyone say that students shouldn’t be participating. Keep at it.”
He continued, “Whatever the next step will be, it will be in step with the College. Community and College: That’s the marching song. We’re going to help Oberlin College make its carbon footprint disappear, and the College will help the city become the green model for Ohio.”
Engstrom agreed with this sentiment of cooperation: “The College and the City need to work closely together to make energy conservation an even higher priority than it already is,” he said. “We now have five years to figure out what we want our community’s energy future to be. From here we get to work on figuring out what technologies make sense for us and on what scale, where to build them, how to pay for them, who owns and operates them, and how to make sure that we create an energy portfolio that represents our needs — not just in terms of environmental and social responsibility, but in terms of ‘dollars and sense’ and reliability.”
After the final vote, the many students at the meeting ran outside into the snow. They huddled into a group hug under a streetlamp, some crying, some cheering.
“The real work begins today,” said Whatley. “We need to provide energy security for Oberlin with clean, renewable electricity. We can build it, we can do it soon, but we need to prove that we’re still going to be there. Otherwise our attendance, concern and comments at last night’s Council meeting won’t mean a thing. I’m hopeful, because I believe in Oberlin.”