CLEVELAND, Ohio — A Cuyahoga County Council committee on Tuesday approved plans to create a public utility at the county level, but only after making changes to the legislation in response to legal concerns raised by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
The full Council must still sign off on County Executive Armond Budish’s goal of creating a Division of Public Utilities. That vote could come as soon as the first week of August and would lay the groundwork for county-led power projects, like creating micro-grids as back-up energy sources.
The Council committee had pushed off Tuesday’s vote for months because it first wanted Yost’s opinion about the legality of a county utility — specifically, whether Ohio law allowed the county to establish and operate one. The opinion was delivered to Council earlier this month. It stated that cities would have to sign off on any utility projects within their borders before the county could move forward.
In response to the opinion, the Council committee on Tuesday approved a new version of legislation that explicitly requires the county executive to get advance permission from cities for such projects. The new language also requires County Council to approve any public utility agreements between the county and cities.
The Budish administration has said Yost’s opinion would have little impact because the county had already intended to get city approval before moving forward on microgrid plans.
Creating a county utility would give the county authority to establish a microgrid, or grids, which would serve as back-up power supplies for businesses that want a constant stream of electricity. The idea has been billed as an economic development tool that could encourage companies to move to the county.
Budish’s initial vision for a microgrid, unveiled in 2019, would have established a grid in downtown Cleveland, using Cleveland Public Power’s authority as a municipal utility company. Those plans have stalled.
In the meantime, the county has pursued a new strategy: establishing microgrids in suburban business hubs, outside of Cleveland. Such a plan would still need to be facilitated by a public utility, so Budish moved to create one at the county-level.
Locations under consideration for a suburban microgrid are around Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and NASA, the future Brecksville site of Sherwin-Williams’ research and development facility, and the former Brooklyn site of American Greetings.
If Council approves the creation of a utility division, the Budish administration intends to solicit proposals from potential grid operators sometime over the next year. As imagined, the operators would bear the full costs of building and running a microgrid. Ideally, it would also reimburse the county for start-up costs for legal work and other consultants, according to Sustainability Director Mike Foley.
Councilwoman Sunny Simon on Tuesday described the idea as a “big deal” for businesses, and something that could put Cuyahoga County “on the map.”
“This is something where we’re going to be leaders,” Simon said.