FirstEnergy, one of Ohio’s largest utilities, is moving forward with a plan to shut down its coal and nuclear power plants after filing for bankruptcy. But FirstEnergy's workers aren't taking the move lying down.
“There’s no way that Ohio can get by closing these two plants," said Laura Bruschi, a safety analysis engineer. “It’s a recipe for economic disaster.”
Bruschi works at the the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Ottawa County, which is set to close in two years. Walking through the halls of the Ohio Statehouse, Bruschi and about a dozen fellow nuclear plant workers from Davis-Besse and the Perry Nuclear Plant in Lake County donned hardhats that say “Save My Job.”
Workers say there’s a bill in the Senate, SB 128, that can rescue the plants, and they’re meeting with lawmakers to advocate for the legislation.
The bill, known as the Zero Emission Nuclear program, would allow FirstEnergy to subsidize its struggling nuclear plants by increasing charges to customers.
Dennis Schreiner, a supervisor of nuclear engineering programs at Davis-Besse, says this funding boost is needed because it costs more to run a clean plant.
“Just like we’ve subsidized solar and wind because they are generally carbon-free and they get a credit, they don’t call it a zero-emissions credit, but we give them a credit to put that technology into play,” Schreiner says. “Why wouldn’t you want to do that for nuclear?”
FirstEnergy’s generation subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, has not performed well in the capacity market. In other words, it’s not getting a high profit when their energy generation is sold into the grid. For years, the company has been looking for ways to subsidize its nuclear and coal plants.
Now FirstEnergy Solutions is filing for bankruptcy, announcing its Davis-Besse plant will close in 2020 and the Perry plant will close in 2021, along with the closure of its coal plants.
Neil Waggoner with the Sierra Club of Ohio has been a vocal critic of FirstEnergy’s subsidy plans, calling them coal and nuclear “bailouts.”
"FirstEnergy has continuously made the wrong business decision and sought things like customer-funded bailouts from the state and now federal level,” Waggoner says. “This is a bad business move for what they’ve been doing and they needed to change course way ahead of time, and they chose not to.”
There has been a mounting opposition against these so-called bailouts, including from the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Ohio Manufacturing Association and the conservative think tank The Buckeye Institute. Opponents say this bill would force customers to pay more in order to prop up power plants, going against the free market approach.
FirstEnergy Solutions declined to comment for this story, but referred to its statement announcing bankruptcy. In it, FirstEnergy Solutions said that it is seeking help from the U.S. Department of Energy and Secretary Rick Perry. The request said it qualifies for help under the Federal Power Act because its nuclear and coal plants provide fuel security and diversity.
But Waggoner argues that this is not what the Federal Power Act is for.
"FirstEnergy’s request to the [U.S.] Department of Energy is an illegal bailout request from the federal government. The Department of Energy should not grant the bailout request, and if they do grant that bailout request you can expect significant litigation fighting that,” Waggoner says. “There’s not going to be any high-technical skilled jobs in Ottawa County.”
Bruschi and her fellow nuclear plant workers, though, worry about what closing the Davis-Besse plant could mean for her community.
“It would turn it into a ghost town,” Bruschi says. “There would be nobody left.”
The nuclear credits bill saw some momentum last year but has not had a hearing since January. The bill’s sponsor made a plea to move the bill forward given FirstEnergy Solutions’ bankruptcy filing.
FirstEnergy says its transmission and distribution side, the one that sends power to homes, is stronger than ever and will not be affected by its generation bankruptcy.