Mystery surrounds group pushing Columbus on $57 million clean energy plan

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Neither environmental groups such as the Ohio Sierra Club nor city officials know much about ProEnergy Ohio, which employs just three people and has a ‘virtual office’ that mostly sits empty in a Downtown building.

ProEnergy Ohio, the for-profit group behind an effort to put an issue on the November ballot in Columbus that would steer $57 million in city money toward green-energy initiatives, is an unknown entity to city officials and environmental groups.

The group delivered petitions to the Columbus city clerk’s office Monday, July 8, to place the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot. The Franklin County Board of Elections has already certified enough signatures for the measure to make the ballot. The Columbus City Council is expected to take a vote to put the initiative on the ballot on either July 22 or July 29.

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Columbus officials, concerned about the financial hit the city budget could take, continue to study the petition to try to figure out what the group is trying to accomplish. Environmental groups such as the Ohio Sierra Club don’t know anything about ProEnergy Ohio either, said Elissa Yoder Mann, a Sierra Club spokeswoman.

John Clarke, the project coordinator for ProEnergy Ohio, said the group does environmental and engineering consulting and employs just three people, including one, George Cooper, who spends his time in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Clarke, whose background is in electrical engineering, said ProEnergy is not affiliated with any other companies or trade groups.

ProEnergy Ohio has a “virtual office,” at 20 S. 3rd St. Downtown, Clarke said. Mail is delivered there, and the group sometimes holds meetings there. He said ProEnergy plans to schedule informational meetings with local groups.

The initiative would create three funds, each receiving $5 million:

• An Energy Conservation and Energy Efficiency Fund that would “promote and fund energy conservation and energy efficiency initiatives” in the city.

• A Clean Energy Education and Training Fund that would promote green energy educational and training efforts.

• A Minority Business Enterprise Clean Energy Development Fund that would promote clean energy initiatives for minority businesses.

It also would create a $42 million Columbus Clean Energy Partnership Fund that would pay for an electricity subsidy program toward green energy for Columbus residents. The petitioners may designate that money be placed in the New York Green Bank, a state-sponsored financial entity that works with the private sector to spur investments in New York’s clean energy markets, according to the bank’s website.

“The New York Green Bank is financing the management of green initiatives types of projects, not only in New York,” said Clarke, who said he wants to leverage the bank’s expertise and management.

“Columbus is a progressive city. Now is the time to do more than talk,” Clarke said. “A lot of cities are looking to move forward to take the initiative.”

“It is a comprehensive package of all of the greatest hits of clean energy projects and environmentally friendly programs for the past 20-30 years,” he said.

One of the petitioners, Irene Llamas of the Near East Side, said she became involved in the effort because she believes the state has gone backward when it comes to clean energy initiatives.

“I believe we pollute too much,” Llamas said. 

The petition language also mentions a “transparency and accountability reporting requirement” for the city auditor.

Auditor Megan Kilgore said she plans to write City Attorney Zach Klein’s office for a legal opinion about her office’s responsibilities if the initiative becomes a reality.

“There is clearly some ambiguity as to the responsibilities of the city auditor’s office,” Kilgore said.

ProEnergy Ohio collected signatures for a similar Columbus initiative in 2017, but never turned in the signatures. Before that, it pushed for an Ohio constitutional amendment to create a $13 billion bond package to fund green energy programs. 

Franklin County Auditor Mike Stinziano said he met with Clarke before the 2017 effort. “We had a discussion about incentivizing green energy,” Stinziano said.

Stinziano said the city’s public utilities director had concerns about the “significant investment of city resources” that the effort would take.

Last week, Columbus City Council spokeswoman Lee Cole said in an email that council members are concerned about any proposal to divert tens of millions of dollars away from city services to an unknown entity with limited public oversight.

“From what I understand, they haven’t reached out to the environmental groups either,” Cole said later in the week.

Emily Bacha, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Council, said in an email that her group supports the city’s leadership on clean energy and climate action, and believes that this should be done through the city, not through another entity.

She mentioned the city’s Sustainable Steps program, where the city teamed up with Columbus Gas, American Electric Power and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to perform 30,000 home energy audits.

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@MarkFerenchik