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Ohio plastics firms are eligible for energy conservation grants of as much as 10 percent of their annual electricity payments to Ohio Edison, under a program approved by state regulators.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on Jan. 31 approved Ohio Edison's Polymer Growth Fund, which provides the grants to companies with an electrical demand of at least 1,200 kilovolt-amperes and an acceptable credit record. A company with that much electrical use would have a yearly electricity budget of about $500,000, making it eligible for a $50,000 grant, an Ohio Edison spokesman said.

The spokesman said 1,200 kva, by comparison, would power 60-70 all-electric homes.

A firm must remain an Ohio Edison customer for five years to receive the grant, or pay it back with interest, he said.

Typical projects that could receive funding include adjustable speed drives, new injection molding machines and extruders, high-efficiency motors and air compressors and thermal blankets, the spokesman said.

In another electricity development, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Dale Bumpers from Arkansas, has introduced the first bill of the new session of Congress to deregulate electric utilities. Bumpers said his proposal would set up an ``organized national plan'' that would have retail competition among electric utilities by December 2003.

But aides to the committee's chairman, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, cautioned in a news briefing that many hurdles remain before legislation can be passed, including working out complicated jurisdictional issues with other committees.