OBERLIN, Ohio—Workers call the diesel power generator “O.P.,” like a nickname for an old friend. It’s about the size of a train car.
O.P., which is a reference to its “opposed piston” design, is a very old friend, installed in this small Ohio city in 1948, and available ever since to provide electricity on summer days when demand is highest.
“I’ve never really seen it miss a beat,” said Jeff Ewell, the lead operator and mechanic for Oberlin Municipal Power & Light System.
But O.P. looks out of place in a city that aims to drastically cut carbon emissions.
Leaders in this college town have committed to reducing community-wide emissions by 75 percent compared to 2007 levels by 2030, with an ultimate target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Their work is informed by research to quantify and categorize the city’s emissions and a plan outlining the steps needed to reach the goals.
Oberlin, with a population of about 8,500, wants to set an example for other small cities about how to have a discussion about climate change, make a plan and implement the plan. The process includes difficult decisions, like what to do with an old power plant that remains a useful asset.
“Climate change for a lot of us is a big, scary monster,” said John Petersen, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College who has helped the school form strong ties with the city government on the climate plan. “But when we localize it and get information, people can roll up their sleeves and ask, ‘What can we do?’”
Creative Municipal Climate Policies
A big part of Oberlin’s ability to reduce its emissions is the fact that the city government owns its electricity utility.
The utility is one of more than 1,800 power providers that are owned by cities, villages or some other form of municipal government, which is more utilities than any other category of ownership, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“Municipal utilities have much more freedom and flexibility,” said George Homsy, an environmental studies professor at Binghamton University in New York. He has written about how some small cities have been creative and forward-thinking on climate policy.
This is in contrast to giant investor-owned utilities, which have often moved slowly to respond to calls to move away from fossil fuels. In a municipal utility, ratepayers can throw out the mayor or city council if bills are too high or service is unreliable, or if officials are moving too slow—or too fast—to embrace clean energy.
The benefits of flexibility and accountability often go hand in hand with the challenges that come from small budgets. While there are a few municipal utilities with more than 100,000 customers, like in Los Angeles and San Antonio, the average number of customers is fewer than 10,000.
Municipal utilities also have some of the oldest fossil fuel power plants in the country, most of which burn liquid fuels like oil or diesel. Examples include an 0.5-megawatt generating unit in Wakefield, Nebraska, that went online in 1915, and a 0.3-megawatt unit in Garnett, Kansas, that went online in 1930.
The Balancing Act
Oberlin’s downtown streets are lined with places to eat and drink, along with landmark businesses like the Ben Franklin five and dime, Watson Hardware and the college bookstore. The utility’s offices are off of Professor Street on the south end of town.
Drew Skolnicki started at the utility 20 years ago as an entry-level technician and worked his way up to become director, leading a staff of 18. Part of his job is to help the city move smoothly to meet its goals, adopted in 2011 and updated in 2019, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While the climate targets are long-term concerns, his main responsibilities are day to day tasks, like keeping electricity rates at a reasonable level and fixing power outages as they happen.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
He gave a tour of the warehouse-like power plant building, which is next door to the utility’s main office.
O.P. is one of the plant’s seven generating units, all of which run on diesel or natural gas. The two newest ones were installed in 2001. Despite the wide range of ages, they all function in the same way, like giant car engines, and have a combined capacity of 18 megawatts.
Workers will fire up the units on the days when the wholesale electricity price is high, saving the city millions of dollars by generating its own power instead of buying it on the regional market.
The noise when the units are running is like a locomotive idling. Workers use ear-protection and in-ear radios as they make sure everything is running properly.
The units are used for a few hours each on a few days per year, and constitute less than 1 percent of the electricity generated for use by the utility’s customers. That share is small enough that city leaders say it’s not a priority to shut down the plant for the sake of reducing emissions.
IRA Funding Creates New Opportunities for Cities
An outside observer may look at the diesel and natural gas power plants as a major problem for a city that wants to cut almost all emissions, but the people working at the utility and on Oberlin’s climate plan say that other concerns are much more pressing.
A big one is that most of the electricity the city buys on the market is generated from burning fossil fuels.
The city owns or has contracts for resources that provide about 80 percent of its electricity, leaving 20 percent to be bought from the wholesale market.
To meet its goals, Oberlin needs to find a way to reduce its market purchases. But that’s difficult to do in a way that is both affordable and meaningful in terms of reducing emissions.
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It’s not a realistic option to completely cut off purchases from the market. The city uses market power to fill the gaps whenever locally generated power isn’t enough. Without market power, Oberlin would need to build vastly more local resources to meet needs during times of high demand.
Also, the city regards some electricity sources as clean or renewable that others might not. For example, much of the city’s locally generated electricity comes from power plants at nearby landfills that run on methane gas captured from the decomposition of trash.
The city categorizes the burning of landfill gas as clean energy, and some city leaders refer to it as renewable energy. Environmental advocates, along with Petersen at Oberlin College, take issue with this terminology.
“Personally, I have always characterized landfill gas as salvaged energy rather than renewable energy,” he said. “There is nothing renewable about a landfill.”
But he doesn’t object to the city’s use of electricity from landfill gas because he says the process leads to less leakage of methane—a super-potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere than would happen if the landfill wasn’t capturing and burning the gas.
Oberlin’s other electricity sources include hydropower plants in Ohio and New York, and a solar array located just north of the city.
City officials would like to increase their purchases of solar power, whether through building their own projects or contracting with solar developers, and to find ways to have access to battery storage.
Local governments have new financial tools to help build renewable energy and energy storage, which together can help to replace old plants. The Inflation Reduction Act has a “direct pay” provision which expands eligibility for clean energy incentives to include entities that don’t pay taxes, like nonprofits and local governments.
The result is that cities can develop and own renewable energy projects and receive federal incentives as a direct payment. Previously, cities would have needed to work with a partner company so that the partner could claim tax credits.
“We would prefer to own and operate the generation resources, as opposed to working with a third party,” said Adrienne Lotto, a senior vice president for the American Public Power Association, a national trade group for government-owned utilities.
The Inflation Reduction Act “gives us a little bit more flexibility and control,” she said.
Skolnicki said he is in the early stages of figuring out what this might mean for Oberlin.
“Direct pay is a game-changer,” he said.
O.P. Chugs Along—For Now
Linda Arbogast is Oberlin’s first sustainability coordinator, hired in 2018 following years working for Oberlin College, the Peace Corps and a local nonprofit. Part of her role, she said, is to get everyone to move toward clean energy at a pace that may be a little faster than they’d like.
“People are not just, ‘Oh, great, it’s good for the environment. Let’s do it,’” she said, interviewed in her office in a former elementary school classroom. “It seems like it’s a fight.”
Examples include her efforts to start an electric vehicle rideshare program, and to provide incentives for residents to get electric lawn mowers, both of which faced initial skepticism, she said.
But she acknowledges that it’s probably less of a struggle to do her job in Oberlin, which is known for being politically progressive, than it would be in most other places.
She has a clear idea of the stakes, in part because she and Petersen were among the lead coordinators of a 2021 report on the city’s climate vulnerability. The report identified the local dangers of extreme heat, changing seasonal patterns, drought and flooding, among other issues.
Because city officials know what their major sources of greenhouse gasses are, and they know the local damage that will become more common with climate change, the people involved in the climate plan approach their work with urgency but also pragmatism.
This helps to explain why none of the major participants in the climate plan are proposing to shut down O.P. For now, the benefits of operating the plant outweigh concerns about its emissions, even if that looks odd in a place that wants to set an example for cutting emissions.
“It’s shades of gray,” Arbogast said. “This is not a black and white world.”