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One Ohio town hopes to become a model in reducing emissions

A man walks toward a bakery  on a main street, flanked by businesses and parked cars.
Dan Gearino
Inside Climate News
Looking east on College Street in downtown Oberlin, Ohio.

Oberlin in northeast Ohio has an ambitious plan to tackle greenhouse gasses. It wants to reduce its emissions by 75% by 2030, compared to its 2007 levels.

The town hopes to be a model of reducing emissions in a small community with limited resources. But, at the same time, the city is still partially powered by a 1940s diesel-power generator. The community sees it as a practical tool, not a barrier to its goals.

Energy reporter Dan Gearino reported the story for InsideClimate News and joined The Ohio Newsroom to talk about it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On how the diesel-powered generator fits into Oberlin’s climate action plans 

“[Oberlin] is kind of on the leading edge of decarbonizing and addressing climate change, but they still have this really old diesel power plant. But … this is a plant that they're only using a couple days a year. And this power plant is less than 1% of the electricity that this city consumes. So you’re using a very tiny amount, and it's freeing up a whole bunch of money. And they can spend a good chunk of that, on figuring out how to reduce their emissions. And there are a bunch of other places that generate a ton more emissions.”

On where the town’s major emissions are coming from

“Oberlin gets about 20% of its power from the regional wholesale market. And there's a whole bunch of fossil fuel power in that market. If Oberlin is truly going to get to as close to zero emissions as possible [with] that market power, which includes natural gas and coal, they're gonna have to find a way to reduce that or that market power is going to have to get a lot cleaner.”

On the advantages of Oberlin owning its utilities

“If you're a community that owns your electric utility, you can do whatever you want – as long as you're willing to pay for it. The downside is if you're in a small town, you don't have much budget. So it's kind of like: you can do anything, but here's how many dollars you have to figure that out. If the residents don't like their electricity rates, they think they're too high, if they think you're not moving fast enough to address climate change, or maybe you're moving too fast … you just replace the city council and you replace the mayor, and you put in people who are going to change things, and they could turn on a dime if they wanted to.”

On how the Inflation Reduction Act could help

“It used to be that if you wanted to qualify for the major clean energy tax credits that the federal government has, you needed to have tax liability: you needed to be an entity that pays taxes. A city government that owns a utility that might want to develop a solar project or a wind project … they don't have tax liability. So if they wanted to take advantage of tax credits, they would have to work with a third party that does have tax liability. The Inflation Reduction Act makes it so that entities that don't have tax liability, can still get credits. Instead of getting a credit off of your taxes, you just get a check. That unlocks an ability for Oberlin or other small utilities. They could just develop their own solar farm. In terms of really widening the opportunities, this is a really big deal.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.