On Monday morning the protesters outside the the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio were fewer in number than in June, but no less determined to prevent a consumer bailout of FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear plant and Sammis coal-fired plant. After three postponements, the PUCO was holding the first evidentiary hearing on FirstEnergy's request for a rate hike to support the aging power plants.

"We are on the brink of a major breakthrough," said Harvey Wasserman, editor of and history instructor at Capital University. "We have a nuclear plant and a coal-fired plant that this utility is begging, tin cup in hand, to keep operating. About a decade ago, we heard FirstEnergy and others say that they wanted competition in the electric power business. Now they are begging for more money to keep these reactors open, because they can't compete in the market.

"We've seen a tremendous drop in the price of solar energy all over the world, and a drop in the price of grid power, especially here in Ohio," Wasserman said. "We have windmills in Bowling Green that are making a lot of money. Thousands of jobs are waiting to be created in northern Ohio once we move ahead with wind power."

Last year Governor John Kasich signed legislation that froze Ohio's green energy standards for two years, giving energy companies less incentive to invest in renewable energy. "It's a travesty," Wasserman said. "We are on the brink of an industrial revival in Ohio, and it's being hindered by FirstEnergy, AEP, and Duke, who are trying to take resources away from a new post-industrial revolution." 

The PUCO has denied similar requests from Duke Energy and American Electric Power in response to community input. "The PUCO is charged with protecting the ratepayers of Ohio," Wasserman said. "They're supposed to do what's good for the public. Instead, they're being asked to do what's good for a private corporation that has no connection whatsoever to the needs of working people in Ohio."

"By FirstEnergy's own numbers, this bailout request would cost customers an additional $15 million a month for 31 months," said Neil Waggoner of the Ohio Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. The Ohio Consumer Council estimates that the true cost will be $3 billion, he said. 

"We can only trust FirstEnergy to do what's in their own economic self-interest," said Pat Marida, chair of Ohio Sierra Club's Nuclear Free campaign. "FirstEnergy has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep Davis-Besse open for an additional 20 years. That's 20 years beyond its engineered lifespan." 

FirstEnergy's request to the PUCO may also include hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to the Davis-Besse plant, Marida said.  "Why not invest that money in renewable energy?" 

"On the one hand, they say they believe in markets, but they can no longer compete with wind and solar," said Bob Fitrakis, political science professor at Columbus State Community College and publisher of the Columbus Free Press. "The cheapest energy is the most sustainable energy. Why not let the market work?"

PUCO hearings on FirstEnergy's request are expected to continue for up to six weeks.