Energy Credit Referendum Wrecked by Paperwork Havoc

Melissa Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Oberlin voters will not decide the distribution of $2.6 million in Renewable Energy Credits this fall because of a paperwork error in submitting a ballot initiative.

The Lorain County Board of Elections rejected the proposed ballot initiative on Aug. 18 when Chairwoman of the Sustainable Reserve Committee Heather Adelman submitted the signatures to Oberlin officials but failed to include a copy of the text and title of the referendum.

Renewable Energy Credits are certificates that prove a one megawatt-hour of electricity was produced with renewable energy. These certificates can be bought and sold on the open market. Since Oberlin draws most of its energy from renewable sources, the city has raised $2.6 million by selling RECs to other cities that want to meet various renewable energy standards.

The City Council decided in June to give 85 percent of the money directly to ratepayers — averaging about $7 a month saved per homeowner — and give the remaining 15 percent to the Sustainable Reserve Program, a fund that promotes energy conservation in Oberlin.

However, the activists in the SRC wanted the council to give ratepayers 15 percent of the money and 85 percent to the SRP.

According to Adelman, the majority of the 85 percent return would go to the biggest users of electricity.

“Two-thirds of the 85 percent going back to ratepayers will go to the 10 largest users, including Walmart, the Federal Government — because the Federal Aviation Administration is here — and Oberlin College,” Adelman said.

Adelman and many others were upset with the council’s decision, so she, along with John Elder, Elizabeth Meadows, Jessa New and Charles Peterson, formed the SRC. They consulted attorney Todd Williams to develop an ordinance to put on the ballot this November to allow voters to have a say in the REC distribution.

The ordinance outlined nine program guidelines for how the SRP would invest in green energy and ultimately save citizens more money in the long run. This included SRP super rebates, commercial and residential energy audits, annual $100 credits to each utility account, weatherization of houses, further reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, community access grants, change in municipal infrastructure to greener energy, a revolving loan fund and energy advocates to guide energy customers in these processes.

Williams explained that the paperwork error was caused by miscommunication between the committee and himself.

“Technical errors make it pretty easy to throw off the entire petition process,” Williams said. “You have to send in the petition the first time, then collect the signatures, then make sure you submit [the signatures in addition to the ordinance and petition language] in a second time. That’s where the problem stemmed from.”

Adelman expressed regret after the submission error occurred. “It’s been personally devastating that I let so many people down,” Adelman said. “So many people worked on this, and because I made a very simple mistake it won’t be on the ballot.”

The Board’s Elections Director, Paul Adams, explained that the Board’s duty is solely to review the petition from a legal standpoint.

“Our concern is just on the validity of the petition,” Adams said. “Whether or not the petition is valid is totally separate from what the petition is for.”

Adams noted that when the Board makes a determination on the validity of a petition, it consults the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office as well. The Office also decided that the petition was legally invalid.

The next time the initiative can be revived and resubmitted for a place on the ballot is in the election of May 2017. However, it is uncertain so far as to whether the Committee will push to put the initiative on the ballot this spring.

Adelman said that the decision on the distribution of the energy credits does not end with the $2.6 million. Adelman estimates that within the next few years, Oberlin can expand the REC to $4 million or $5 million with green energy investments by the Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System.

Therefore, while ability to vote on REC distribution will not be on the ballot for now, Adelman said that there will be future efforts to allow citizens to decide how they want to use that money.

Regardless of what happens regarding future referendums, 85 percent of the REC money will begin to be reimbursed to ratepayers starting in January 2017.