Athens voters overwhelmingly approved a carbon fee in the primary election that will be collected to fund solar projects in town.
There were 1,410 votes in favor of the initiative and just 437 against, according to figures provided Tuesday night by the Athens County Board of Elections. The results are unofficial.
As The Messenger has previously reported, the opt-out carbon fee will only charge members of the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC) electric aggregation program in the city 0.2 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity used. The average household consumes between 800 and 900 kilowatt hours each month, according to SOPEC, which means members will pay a monthly fee between $1.60 and $1.80.
The carbon fee won't go into effect until after 2019, said SOPEC Executive Director Eddie Smith.
The fee will work as an incentive for members to consume less energy in their homes. Also, the fee would be used to fund solar installation projects on public buildings in the city, such as city-owned buildings, schools and buildings used by public boards.
Smith said the agency plans to host public hearings to gain feedback from citizens on which buildings they would like to see solar projects installed.
"We will probably begin the first of hearings this summer, hopefully in July," he said.
To opt out of the fee, city residents will have to opt out of the aggregation program entirely. Smith said current members who choose to opt out will not be charged and can do so anytime.
Smith, who is also an Athens Twp. trustee, approached City Council earlier this year about putting the carbon fee on Tuesday’s ballot. SOPEC technically didn’t have to ask permission to charge members such a fee, but Smith said that would have gone against its core values as a public agency that considers democratic governance a “high priority.”
“We never ever want to impose anything on customers that didn’t play an active role in enacting,” he said.
As The Messenger previously reported, one supposed benefit to having local solar energy projects would be receiving Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which are issued when one megawatt-hour of electricity is generated and delivered to the electricity grid from a renewable energy source. Energy users can purchase RECs and assign them to their energy consumed from the grid.
According to Smith, the opt-out aggregation program provides a “100 percent renewable energy product” by purchasing RECs from wind farms in the west. Those RECs cost 51 cents per megawatt hour and provide revenues to those wind farms but none for local solar projects, which the fee will change.
The carbon fee will help the city meet its goals outlined in the Athens City Sustainability Plan, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in residential and municipal energy consumed from the grid and a 20 percent increase in solar generation capacity within the city by 2020.
Additionally, the fee will align with the promise Mayor Steve Patterson made to continue honoring the Paris Climate Accord when he became a member of the national Climate Mayors group.
The Messenger previously reported that according to the mayor, the subsequent savings on electric bills from installed solar systems could help the city redirect funds to other uses in town.
Smith said Athens is the first city in the nation without a municipal electric utility “to solve the carbon pricing problem” by using the opt-out aggregation program.
SOPEC partnered with UpGrade Ohio, the League of Women Voters and political advocacy group Campaign Now to get the word out about the fee. UpGrade Ohio held three informational sessions and the League of Women Voters organized a town hall meeting on the fee.
A website with information on the fee, yard signs and informational booklets were also created, and Smith said SOPEC and partners made thousands of recorded and live calls to citizens about the fee. City Council also helped answer questions from citizens about the fee, he added, and Remington Road Group decided to endorse the issue.
Smith said he was grateful to “numerous partners who have put time in educating the public about this issue.”
For Smith, the biggest value out of the carbon fee initiative isn’t charging the fee, building solar panels or incentivizing energy conservation.
“It’s having dialogue about the damage that comes from fossil fuel energy production, and overtime shaping a culture that understands how incredibly damaging those byproducts are,” he said. “If we’re ever going to have an efficient energy economy, we have to have a culture that embraces charging and capitalizing into the rate of energy those damages from fossil fuel energy production.”
Smith said SOPEC would like to have other regional cities like Marietta become members and possibly ask voters there about implementing a carbon fee.