Oberlin residents face a confusing choice when it comes to what to do with Issue 16 and Issue 17, which deal with what the city should do with money generated from trading renewable energy credits.
Those credits are created when electricity is generated in a green manner and then bought, sold and traded in a similar fashion to how shares of a company are traded on the stock market.
Oberlin has two renewable energy credit programs in place, the city's finance director, Sal Talarico, told us. One is a partnership with Oberlin College that has pumped money for the past decade into the Sustainable Reserve Fund, which can only be used on energy efficiency programs related to electricity.
The other is a 3-year-old deal with a company called
3 Degrees that has generated roughly $2.5 million that has been sitting untouched in city coffers while city leaders sort out what to do with it.
Theoretically, City Council settled the question last year when it voted to return 85 percent to customers in the form of credits on future bills. The remaining 15 percent would flow into the Sustainable Reserve Fund.
Council also put in place a program that would allow customers to forego their credits and instead direct the money into a newly created Community Choice Program, which the city would have broad discretion to spend on furthering its Climate Action Plan.
Others, however, had different ideas. They wanted all of the money to be directed into the Sustainable Reserve Fund, which has been largely used to fund an energy efficiency advocate for POWER, Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly, over the years.
At the core of the debate is which of those two options should prevail.
Issue 16 would push the money into the Sustainable Reserve Fund. Issue 17, on the other hand, would allow Council's plan to create the Community Choice Program to go into effect.
How many customers would actually forego that money and direct it to the Community Choice Program is impossible to say, but it probably wouldn't be many. Kendal at Oberlin has announced it would do so.
Still, we believe the better course of action is the creation of the Community Choice Program and customer credits.
John Scofield, chairman of Oberlin's Public Utilities Commission, said that credits on customers' future electric bills would allow the city to keep prices down when electric rate increases go into effect in the near future.
Scofield, who supports Issue 17, said that the city ends up sending out around 200 shutoff notices for unpaid electric bills every month. The $9 or $10 per month that a residential customer might receive as a credit could help prevent that from happening, he said.
"That money means something to those people," he said.
Councilman Bryan Burgess, who supports Issue 16 and opposes Issue 17, told us that the money belongs in the Sustainable Reserve Fund, not to customers.
John Elder, vice president of Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy and an Issue 16 proponent, argued that one problem with crediting customers' bills is that larger customers would see larger credits if the money is credited proportionately to what a customer spends.
That seems more like basic fairness than a problem, but it could sway some who don't want to see Oberlin College or Walmart receive more money than the average homeowner if credits become a reality.
They also argued that the credits would keep the city's electric rates artificially low and cause a spike when the money funding the credits eventually runs out.
Given that the money has languished for years in the city's bank accounts while city leaders tried to figure out to do with it, we have doubts that they will use the money effectively if all of it is placed in a fund that has only limited uses.
And it's not like the Sustainable Energy Fund would receive nothing. It would still get 15 percent of the money the city makes off trading energy credits under the 3 Degrees deal. Even if the money the program brings in drops due to fluctuations in the market, the fund would still be taking in money.
The Community Choice Program offers more flexibility to the city to meet its environmental goals than relying solely on the Sustainable Energy Fund, even if the pot of money wouldn't be as big.
And if the city finds a program that would benefit from the Sustainable Energy Fund, Council can always revise the split to reduce the credit to customers and bulk up the amount going into the fund.
In the meantime, the money is better off in the hands of customers.
Oberlin voters should vote no on Issue 16 and yes on Issue 17.