Readi Kilowatt and Brutus

Privatization is becoming the policy de joure at Ohio State University, but students and university employees are left out of the discussions.

As OSU’s leadership has shifted, many community members have become concerned about drastic changes in student life and operations, like the new sophomore on-campus housing requirement and the recent parking privatization deal. The OSU administration has touted great success with the parking privatization, but how much is propaganda and talking points?

Now OSU has turned to privatizing campus energy services. Few details were shared with the public about the parking deal, like how savings were spent or how the university’s mission has been better served. Similar concerns are echoed in the current energy privatization deal.    

Columbus is neither Steel City nor Motor City – places where one industry dominates the economic landscape. Ohio State University has dominated Central Ohio’s economic landscape. Stakeholders and residents here have benefitted from a growing university and more income streams.

But, when OSU services are outsourced to private companies, all stakeholders have to be considered in such a deal too. And, who will do the work?

The Buckeye Community wants to know how privatization will affect longtime workers’ careers and how the deal will impact current sustainability goals. The 1,800 local Communications Workers of America union members are especially nervous about the university’s proceedings.

As the deal speeds along and these uncharted waters are hastily navigated, the OSU energy privatization deal, so far, lacks the necessary transparency, provides little protection for a capable, loyal workforce, and needs a stronger commitment to sustainability.

Transparency and the Community

One of the biggest issues with this deal is the lack of transparency. Most of the local community not aware of the impending privatization. OSU has held only three public meetings to date, leaving very few opportunities for community members to voice their opinion.

This is a monumental long-term deal. There is over $850 million on the line: $600 million in energy bills over the next fifty years and $250 million in energy savings over that same time.

Granted, with a deal this complex and not explaining it makes it more complex. What concerns residents is how institutions in this community have treated those who live, work, and raise their children in Columbus.

Since OSU is a public higher education institution, it should share a wealth of information about this plan. The campus community has requested a cost-benefit anlaysis. As OSU writes the agreement terms and searches for vendors, those involved want to know how their lives will be affected so that they too can plan for the next fifty years.

The Communications Workers of America #4501 (CWA) represent over 1,800 Central Ohio bargaining members and assures the labor agreement between OSU and CWA is appropriately fulfilled. Kevin Kee, President of the local CWA chapter, spoke with the Columbus Free Press to share his thoughts on privatization. What was surprising was that with thousands of jobs on the line, he spoke strongly about the deal yet did not condemn it.

 “People talk about ‘Made in America’… People need to talk about ‘Work in America,’” said Kevin sounding exasperated. He explained that when OSU began studying energy privatization, it had an immediate negative affected upon the university’s relationship with the union.

After making wage concessions in 2015, the CWA local has retained authority over “exclusive bargaining (rights for) service and skilled trades employees, “ and they feel that once an energy privatization deal is made, the CWA bargaining unit at Ohio State would be “decimated.”

Kee continued, “Of course, a university should always try to save money, but not at the expense of the workers…They help make up the local economy.”

OSU began the process in February 2015 by soliciting Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) from vendors on their ability to lease and operate energy systems. The request closed in June. No public meetings were held then.

The deal moved into the Request for Information (RFI) stage where the vendors that met RFQ requirements shared with the university what the financial benefit of their partnership would be – talking about the big bucks. At that point, both OSU and the vendor knew that each campus has an unhealthy use of power, and can cut energy demand 25% by 2025. Those numbers, quite possibly, could become much higher with the right vendor.

Transparency is essential as public institutions conduct these types of deals. Although we do know how many companies have participated (Stage 1 - 44 responses; Stage 2 - 40 responses; Stage 3 - 10 multi-firm responses), the administration has not shared the participating company names, for fear of breaching “trade secrets.” How revealing simply the name of a company breaches trade secrets remains a mystery.

The RFI ended in February 2016 and OSU has now entered the final stage where, after the Request for Proposal stage, decisions are made. The Board of Trustees expect to make a decision this autumn.

What happens to the 1,800 bargaining members now at Ohio State? Currently, they are only being guaranteed an interview with a future corporate partner.

After a long relationship with Ohio State, Darlene Sutherland says, “I have worked 17 years at Ohio State which has been good for me and them.” Darlene, a CWA #4501 member, explained that if many or all of those union members lose their jobs, and employee turnover at the school increases, “…you don’t know who is walking around campus.” She helped those in attendance at an on-campus event understand that workers who run Ohio State smoothly also maintain a safe environment.

Strides for Sustainability

It is important to address the two big elephants in the room: $600 million in energy bills and $250 million in energy savings. By making both small and large actions, like committing to turning off lights when leaving the room, OSU believes it can add a quarter billion dollars to the bottom line over the next 50 years, to the tune of $5 million a year.

Public-private partnerships can produce great things, and as a thriving land-grant university the Buckeye community expects great things. Of course, there are costs and risks associated with saving such a large amount. Converting to all LED bulbs, automating air conditioning and heating, and potentially installing renewable energies will cost someone money. All are examples to be explored in order to achieve substantial cost savings.

Before continuing, it is important to take note of the positive strides OSU has made to become green and reduce its footprint. Successful recycling and composting measures at Ohio State have made large-scale operations economically possible for the university and the city alike. Also, 30% of the main campus’ electricity is powered by wind generated in Northwest Ohio.

Another more relevant action took place on campus as American Electric Power (AEP) and OSU partnered to install a 101 kW system on top of the RPAC, an enormous recreation facility on the main campus. Although states like New York do not allow large, established utilities to distribute solar power that they own, it is yet to be determined how corporations like AEP will affect the renewable energy industry in Ohio.

Since the state’s big utilities have been slow to adopt renewable electricity generation, it may be logical for utilities in this state to get on board with renewables by owning large-scale systems. Solar and wind installers are not selective about who employees them as long as work is consistent and the pay is decided according to the necessary effort and skill.

Why not at least share the names of the vendors? It would be good to know if some of the vendors provide renewable energy. It is not clear how finding out who is bidding will affect the value of the deal. In fact, no deal this large, covering so many different services and aspects of an energy system, has been accomplished before nationwide, especially, not by a public institution for higher education.

Anya Schoolman, an expert in the energy field, had a lot to stay about OSU’s privatization. Anya is from the Community Power Network, a national organization focused on policy and aggregation for renewable energy, which also has operations in Ohio, called Ohio Solar United Neighborhoods (Ohio SUN). She did not inherently see anything wrong with OSU pursuing energy privatization.

“If OSU and a private company want to save money and be sustainable, both parties have to value each item at the same time. They also have to be clear how they can get both done.”

Anya continued that there should be multiple groups that work together and share their expertise to do things like power facilities and reduce how many electrons are used to monitor a heartbeat or light a restroom.

Since OSU is considering 10 multi-firm options, it is very likely that a great solution has been proposed. OSU has an incredible amount of leverage too since it is a government entity. OSU needs to be clear about how it can operate academically as it furthers research, while also creating applaudable energy savings. Why not use their position as leverage and hold those private companies accountable?

While other puzzle pieces like private corporations Nationwide or Huntington could easily keep all details under wraps, OSU has an obligation to residents who ay taxes in the state and students who pay tuition at the school. Tuition alone at OSU is nearly $10,000 a year. Students want to know where there dollars go, especially when universities in countries like Germany are offering Americans free tuition and significant benefits.

Anya emphasized that much of the energy demanded on campus could be generated on campus too. The university has over 22 million square feet of real estate. Why not cover many rooftops with large solar arrays? On Denver, Colorado’s airport campus, there is a large solar array that powers much of the facilities and operations. Since OSU also owns a regional airport, a utility-scale operation could easily be installed and generate solar power that is fed into the grid.

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio has an excellent partnership with a not-for-profit company called the Medical Center Company (MMCo). The two entities’ agreement provides energy, including some solar electricity, to meet needs for many campus facilities, medical facilities, etc.

The MMCo has taken on some services, usually provided by a utility by distributing and generating electricity, as MMCo is financially able to do so. Some solar electricity is produced from a nearby site off campus, the 1 MW solar system. Because there is a long-term relationship with Case and MCCo, each has shared in their projects’ success and they have detailed the process and results in a variety of ways for others to study as academics and lay people.

Reducing energy use on campus 25% by 2025 is an ambitious goal that requires embracing sustainability. OSU is an institution of great magnitude and should be a shining example for both conservative and liberal schools to study and replicate. So, looking at other goals, one takes pause at becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Over thirty years away, one could easily assume that all major research universities will be carbon neutral by then. What that goal says is that OSU will keep the pace, just like everyone else.

A research institution should help set the pace in transitioning towards a cleaner future. OSU accepts that humans around the world heavily influence climate change, especially those in the developed world. The Ohio legislature has stalled out measures to move Ohio towards a cleaner grid, but the university should redirect the conversation to one of action. President Drake and other Trustees should commit to 50% renewable electricity by 2030.

Students Are Organizing

Campuses around Ohio have made concerted efforts to behave more socially and environmentally equitable. Oberlin College has begun a green fund to incentivize economically sound and green actions which also help fund future sustainability needs.

Likewise, Ohio University (OU) has begun divesting from companies that are involved in “conflict minerals.” In an effort to separate Ohio University’s investment portfolio from conflict minerals, a student-chapter organization called Stand Against Genocide was able to secure control of a $10 million subportfolio that could be managed and invested for the purpose of furthering that school’s mission while not indirectly benefiting from global conflicts.

The experiment has lasted two years and provides potential for OU through its portfolio to improve the lives of students in Southeast Ohio pursuing a degree and people around the world that will never set foot on campus. As students who are part of that movement in Athens, Ohio have gained ground, some have transitioned their efforts to divest Ohio University from fossil fuels as well. Impassioned students for sustainability spoke of the difficulties in tackling this new, separate yet related obstacle. As students they felt outnumbered, since their voice does not translate to decision-making power.

Moving Forward

The OSU student body, encompassing tens of thousands of individuals, cannot influence the school’s future as do the small OSU Board of Trustees. Students and CWA #4501 members are working to make their voices heard and for the University to act upon their requests.

On Thursday, March 24th, the OSU chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops held an on campus event called “Crisis on Campus.” All those involved shared concerns about employees’ futures and campus sustainability. A panel of activists and a CWA worker spoke to a crowd of nearly 40 people. They signed letters and delivered them the next day to President Drake’s office. More actions are planned for the near future.

The Ohio Students’ Climate Justice Strategy Summit is happening in Columbus, Ohio on April 1st and 2nd at the United Methodist Church on 16th Ave and Summit St. At the Summit, students will attend small group sessions to learn how they can address the University decision-makers and build relationships.

Additionally, OSU students plan to set up a “tent city” on the South Oval to highlight student concerns for workers and sustainability on campus. Visit the OSU student chapter USAS page for more details.

Although there is still time before the decision is made, the stakeholders – students, workers, alumni, faculty and staff, and other community members – must come to an agreement on how OSU should act for the next half century or risk exclusion.

With this in mind, OSU decision-makers must integrate its stakeholders into the planning process, because without this group of people, OSU and Central Ohio lose an integral part of the big sustainable picture.

After a deep reflection on that topic, OSU can internalize the community’s message and then proceed into the future approaching new challenges with a holistic and balanced approach. Everyone involved can come to a compromise while receiving full satisfaction in keeping the lights on, saving money, and cultivating a more welcoming environment.

Not only will 1,800 CWA workers be grateful for an honest, open deal, but future generations will also appreciate well-conducted opportunity that allows them to get fed on campus, surf the web and learn about women’s studies, and, possibly, invent the next cure for lung cancer. Everyone in this community will benefit from OSU bringing a competent, CWA work force and a cleaner grid into the future.

Fifty years of a bad policy is too long, but a policy done right could provide enormous benefits.


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