New utility group touts independence, but questions remain about ties to Illinois nuclear bailout

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A new Ohio utility group on Wednesday unveiled its first big report, rating Ohio’s power grid as the fifth-worst in the nation.

In explaining the dismal rating, the group, the Citizens Utility Board of Ohio, blamed at least part of it on a culture that led to the passage of House Bill 6, a nuclear bailout that federal prosecutors called the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio history.

“There is a direct correlation between Ohio’s dismal national ranking in electric service and recent revelations that our state legislature was compromised by a brazen bribery scheme perpetrated by Ohio’s most powerful energy company,” Tom Bullock, the group’s executive director, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. 

However, Bullock’s group has ties to a similar group in Illinois that supported a nuclear bailout in that state that also involved allegations of bribery.

The Citizens Utility Board of Ohio was incorporated as a nonprofit on July 16, according to documents on file with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. Its website says it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer watchdog that advocates for residential and small business utility customers.” 

It’s not to be confused with the Office of Ohio Consumer Counsel, the statewide legal representative of residential customers whose board members are appointed by the state attorney general.

The Citizens Utility Board lists as among its goals repealing HB 6, expanding energy efficiency, investing in decarbonization strategies and devising strategies to get consumers to shift to using electricity in off-peak hours.

And the report released Wednesday that ranks Ohio’s power grid so dismally uses data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to look at three factors: affordability, reliability and environmental friendliness.

In a Zoom call unveiling the report, Bullock said problems long festering in the Buckeye State were at least partly to blame for the state’s lousy electrical grid.

“Utility company influence over Ohio government is hardly new,” he said. “In fact, for decades veteran watchers of Capitol Square have seen utilities leverage their money, their size and longevity to influence decision-makers to shape policies to their liking.”

However, a group related to Bullock’s, the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, is facing some of those same charges itself. In fact, the executive director of that group, David Kolata, was on the call with Bullock.

An investigation published Sept. 21 by Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ raises questions about Kolata’s support for nuclear bailouts in Illinois.

Then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and four associates were charged in the HB 6 scandal on allegations that in 2019, they used $61 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder speaker, pass a $1.3 billion bailout of two Northern Ohio nuclear plants and fight off a ballot initiative to repeal the law.

In 2016, Kolata and his group supported a $2.35 billion bailout of two Illinois nuclear plants owned by Chicago-based Exelon through its subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison. 

Similarly to Ohio, Illinois lawmakers are considering the repeal of the bailout after ComEd this summer admitted to an eight-year bribery scheme in Springfield, the state capital. Even though he hasn’t been charged, Democratic House Speaker Michael J. Madigan features prominently in federal criminal filings against ComEd, WBEZ reported.

Not only did he support the bailout, Kolata attended a glitzy celebration sponsored by ComEd to celebrate its passage.

The bailout bill raised rates on consumers. But Kolata’s organization said it supported the legislation because of energy efficiency requirements that “potentially” could save billions, reported WBEZ, which broke the news of the federal investigation.

There might be some justice in that argument. By contrast to such requirements in the Illinois bailout, Ohio’s HB 6 gutted the state’s requirements for renewables and energy efficiency. 

But critics of Kolata and his organization said there was a conflict because the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois had received millions from foundations that the Illinois legislature required ComEd to set up and pay into. Kolata said there was no conflict because there were no strings attached to the money.

Even so, his support for nuclear bailouts has been durable.

Kolata testified earlier this year before an Illinois Senate committee in support of a further Exelon nuclear bailout. He said he had reviewed Exelon’s financial statements after signing a non-disclosure agreement, WBEZ reported.

On Wednesday, Kolata didn’t have much to say about his support for the 2016 nuclear bailout in Illinois that is now mired in scandal. 

“The goal here is to make sure consumers ultimately get a good return on their investment and CUB Illinois has a long track record of getting good results for consumers,” Kolata said Wednesday. “So at the end of the day, the data speaks for itself.”

Addressing his presence on the Ohio call, Kolata said, “All of the (consumer utility boards) are independent, but we have similar goals to find the cheapest, fastest way to decarbonize the electrical system, so this is part of a regional effort.”

Bullock, the executive director of the Ohio Citizens Utility Board, was asked if one of his group’s goals was to prop up failing nuclear reactors that can’t compete with natural gas and renewable energy.

“No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s what we said. Increase the affordability, the reliability and cleanliness of the power supply. We are pointing out the need for repeal of House Bill 6, which goes in the direction opposite of what your question was pointing at.”

Bullock said his group had been supported by grants from the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation, and individual contributions.

“CUB Ohio is not funded by utilities at all,” he said. “We’re grant-funded and we’ve got a fast-growing membership and they make donations as well.”

But while he maintained his group’s independence, Bullock later conceded that one of its board members is Daniel Gray, director of regional strategies at the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois.

He said CUB Ohio is independent “in the sense that we (have) our own budget, corporation, decision makers and agenda,” adding “Certainly, there is commonality of mission. That’s why I invited Dave to be on our call today.” 

Asked whether the Ohio group would support nuclear energy in the future, Bullock said, “Theoretically, if a zero-emission source can be affordable, that’s something our board certainly would consider.”

The 70-page report released by the group Tuesday does seem to put in a good word for nukes. 

It classifies nuclear power as a form of carbon-free energy generation and notes that if it’s not counted as renewable, Ohio is 49th in that form of energy and “far below” its peer states in the region. The report adds that if Ohio’s nukes are counted as renewable, Ohio then is ranked 22nd and “higher among its peer group.”

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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October 9, 2020 at 04:59PM

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