Energy Harbor, owner of nuclear plants at heart of HB6 scandal, sold for $3.4 billion to Texas-based Vistra Corp

Energy Harbor, owner of nuclear plants at heart of HB6 scandal, sold for $3.4 billion to Texas-based Vistra Corp.

Davis-Besse plant
This April 4, 2017, file photo shows the entrance to the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Energy Harbor, which owns the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, will be sold to Texas-based Vistra Corp. for $3 billion in cash, a 15% stake in a Vistra subsidiary, and assumption of $430 million in debt. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)AP

By Jeremy Pelzer,

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Energy Harbor, the owner of two nuclear power plants at the center of the House Bill 6 scandal, has been purchased for more than $3.4 billion by Texas-based Vistra Corp., according to a release.

The sale of the one-time FirstEnergy subsidiary fulfills a key goal of HB6 backers – to be able to sell the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants in Northern Ohio. Vistra was part of the coalition that unsuccessfully pushed to overturn HB6, but the company is now set to buy the power plants even though lawmakers have since repealed HB6′s $1 billion-plus ratepayer bailout, designed to financially prop up the two plants.

Both companies’ boards of directors have approved the deal, and a majority of Energy Harbor stockholders support the move, according to the release.

Most Energy Harbor shareholders will receive cash at the closing of the deal, according to the release, while the two largest shareholders – investment firms Nuveen and Avenue Capital Group – will get a combination of cash and a 15% ownership stake in Vistra.

The companies anticipate closing the deal sometime in the second half of this year, according to the release. Several federal regulators must still sign off on the purchase, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The release stated that Vistra will not purchase Energy Harbor’s two coal plants along the Ohio River – the W.H. Sammis plant in Jefferson County and the Pleasants Power Station near Belmont, W.Va. The Sammis plant (which was temporarily saved by HB6) is set to close later this summer; West Virginia lawmakers have been trying to find ways to save the Pleasants plant, including urging Energy Harbor to sell the facility to a FirstEnergy subsidiary.

Vistra was already the largest energy generator in Ohio even before the deal, operating seven natural gas, oil and coal power plants around the state, according to previous legislative testimony by the company, though two of their Ohio coal plants are set to close by 2027.

The announcement of the sale comes the same week as closing arguments are scheduled to be delivered in the trial of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican who is charged with using $60 million in FirstEnergy bribe money to get HB6 passed. Ex-Ohio Republican Party Chair Matt Borges, a pro-HB6 lobbyist, is also on trial for racketeering.

Both Householder and Borges have pleaded not guilty. Two other co-defendants, lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Householder political aide Jeff Longstreth, have already pleaded guilty to their roles in the scandal and testified in the trial.

At the time HB6 was passed in 2019, proponents – including FirstEnergy Solutions, the FirstEnergy subsidiary that later spun off into Energy Harbor – argued the law’s ratepayer bailout was needed to keep the plants from closing.

Energy Harbor’s three nuclear power plants – Davis-Besse and Perry in Northern Ohio, as well as Beaver Valley in Pennsylvania – will become part of a newly-formed Vistra subsidiary called “Vistra Vision,” according to the release.

The bailout was later repealed after Householder and his co-defendants were arrested in July 2020.

Energy Harbor executive chairman John Kiani stood to make $100 million if the two nuclear plants were sold, according to court testimony from Cespedes, a FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist who helped lead efforts to get HB6 passed. Cespedes said Kiani knew about FirstEnergy Solutions’ aggressive, $35 million campaign to block an HB6 repeal effort, which included secretly funded ad buys, bribing anti-HB6 petition signature collectors, and hiring private investigators to tail signature gatherers.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much Kiani – who has been accused of no crime to date – stands to make from Vistra’s purchase of Energy Harbor.

The Plain Dealer/ has reached out to an Energy Harbor spokesman about how much Kiani will make from the Energy Harbor’s sale to Vistra.

Cespedes also testified Vistra was one of the energy companies that funded efforts to stage a statewide referendum to repeal HB6. That effort failed after anti-HB6 petition gatherers, facing physical intimidation and bribe offers from pro-HB6 forces, were unable to get enough petition signatures for a repeal measure to make the November 2019 ballot.

“In some ways, it’s kind of funny and poetic that Vistra is buying these plants,” said Neil Waggoner, federal deputy director of energy campaigns for the Sierra Club, in an interview on Monday.

The sale, Waggoner said, also illustrates how financial fortunes have changed for the Davis-Besse and Perry plants since 2019.

When HB6 was passed, the plants were seen as money losers that needed a bailout to become financially attractive. But now, he said, energy prices have gone up because of the war in Ukraine, a number of coal plants in the region are set to close, the Inflation Reduction Act offers a variety of tax credits and incentives for nuclear plants, and President Joe Biden’s administration is looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions.

“The big thing is just seeing how dramatically the world has changed since 2019,” Waggoner said.