Smart Columbus Energy functions as a nonprofit energy broker, forming agreements between large corporate campuses and local utilities to buy renewable energy.
The push to get more electric vehicles on Columbus, Ohio, roads and highways is also prompting a look at where all that energy will come from.
Smart Columbus, an umbrella effort led by the Columbus Partnership, the city and others, has spent the last four years developing policy and other changes to transition the region’s transportation sector into one that is more sustainable. It has included numerous campaigns to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, among other projects.
“One of the questions we almost always inevitably get is, 'Well, what about the power that you’re putting into those electric cars?'” said Mark Patton, vice president of Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership, in a recent interview with Government Technology.
This inquiry led to the formation of Smart Columbus Energy, an energy aggregator and power broker. In short, Smart Columbus Energy works with large employers — who are generally large users of electricity — to secure renewable energy commitments from utility providers like American Electric Power (AEP) Energy, which owns or contracts with electric generation facilities.
“AEP has been committed to growing our renewable generation fleet for several years,” said Scott Blake, a spokesman for American Electric Power, the parent company of AEP Energy. AEP currently has 5,300 megawatts of renewable energy generation, with plans to add about 8,000 megawatts of solar and wind power by 2030.
“We engaged with Smart Columbus Energy to help them learn the ins and outs of renewable energy markets and further their ability to help other customers in the future,” said Blake via email. “As a not-for-profit broker, they help customers navigate the complex renewable energy market options and use the proceeds to further fund programming for their mission to benefit central Ohio.”
Just as some of the region’s large companies embraced the idea of installing EV charging on their corporate campuses, they are also interested in securing clean energy, said Patton. But they needed a partner to work out the arrangements with utility providers.
“It was pretty clear there was corporate interest,” said Patton.
A typical energy purchase contract ranges from one to three years, Patton explained. However, renewable energy contracts are generally spread over a longer period of 10 to 15 years, where buyers lock in a set rate.
“They [the utility] agree to deliver that power at a set price, with no escalator for the term of the agreement,” said Patton. “And the key is, that long-term commitment from the customers is what enables those projects to get financed and built.”
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy generation sector is as much a goal of Smart Columbus as reducing climate-warming emissions from tailpipes.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranked Ohio 37th in the country in its most recent state scorecard, falling four ranks since 2019. The Buckeye State earned only 0.5 points out of 12 possible for its energy efficient transportation policies. The report cited “damaging legislation” which rolled back energy efficiency programs and policies.
However, Columbus may be the leader for not only central Ohio, but the state. The city, as part of its climate action plan, launched an initiative to be carbon neutral by 2050. In recent years, AEP invested $10 million to install 375 electric vehicle charging stations, in addition to other grid enhancements, said Blake.
What's more, the incoming Biden administration could help to reset the table when it comes to energy efficiency and climate goals. The president-elect has said he plans have the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement, a set of broad policy goals to address climate change agreed upon by a number of nations.
“Our assumption is that having a new administration come in places, I guess, a higher priority on the environment, and those goals are probably going to be even more important,” said Patton.
“There is quite a bit of demand that we’re seeing, from developers, companies, because the [renewable energy] costs have come down so much,” he added. “Ten years ago, if you were buying renewable energy you had to be willing to pay a hefty premium.”