Important Public Utility Developments By Michael R. Smalz, Senior Attorney, Ohio Poverty Law Center

There have been a number of major developments in the Ohio legislature and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) that may significantly impact residential and low-income utility consumers in Ohio.

First, the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network – represented by the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Southeast Ohio Legal Services – has intervened in the new AEP Ohio electric rate case. Although AEP is forecasting lower generation charges in its rate application, it is also asking the PUCO to approve various “distribution riders” – additional bill charges or surcharges – that would especially burden residential and small business customers. The evidentiary hearing (trial) in this case is before two PUCO attorney examiners and is scheduled to begin on June 3, 2014. The PUCO has also scheduled a number of local public hearings to hear the opinions of ordinary people – including AEP Ohio customers. These include one public hearing in southeastern Ohio, set for 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, at Washington State Community College, Arts & Science Building, Harvey Graham Auditorium, 710 Colegate Drive, Marietta, OH, 45750. Anyone in APJN who is concerned about AEP Ohio’s electric rates is encouraged to  attend and state his or her views at this local public hearing.

Second, PUCO Chairman Todd Snitchler, a Kasich appointee, has resigned. He was a close ally of the electric and natural gas suppliers and marketers but he also gave favorable treatment to the traditional utilities like AEP and Duke Energy. He was less friendly to residential utility consumers – including low-income consumers. His successor, former State Representative Thomas Johnson, who took office on April 11, is equally conservative but probably more open-minded and receptive to the concerns of consumer stakeholders and advocates.

Third, the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC), the Office of Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE), and other utility consumer and low-income advocates have filed extensive written comments with the PUCO and the Ohio Development Services Agency regarding their proposed changes to the low-income Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) program rules. Some of the proposed rule changes – e.g., strengthening protections for tenant-consumers – are good, but others – e.g., eliminating the temporary zero-payment option for zero-income customers during the winter heating months – are less favorable.

Fourth, utility consumer advocates won a significant victory on February 26, 2014, when the Commission issued its decision in the Retail Electric Market Service Investigation case. Specifically, the Commission decided to continue to allow customers to obtain their electricity (generation) from the traditional electric distribution utilities at the companies’ usual standard service offer rate instead of requiring all customers to go on the market and purchase their electricity from a third-party electric supplier or marketer or, if they fail to do so, arbitrarily and forcibly assigning customers to an electric supplier or marketer who may be charging a much higher rate than the distribution company’s  “standard service offer” rates. This was a surprising but important victory in light of the PUCO Chairman’s strong support for the electric suppliers and marketers.

Recently, conservative state legislators have introduced new legislation, Senate Bill 310 (SB 310), that would greatly weaken the existing energy efficiency and renewable energy requirements for Ohio’s electric utilities. This bill, if enacted in the law, could jeopardize the existing low-income utility-funded energy efficiency (weatherization) programs, which have become increasingly important as federal weatherization funds have dwindled. Furthermore, the growing alternative energy industry in Ohio – primarily solar and windmill manufacturers – could be destroyed with the loss of many Ohio jobs if this becomes law.

Anyone who opposes this legislation should contact their own state senator and state representative as well as the Chair of the Senate Public Utilities Committee, Senator Bill Seitz, at (614) 466-8068 or sd08@ohiosenate.gov. If anyone has any questions regarding these issues or other public utility developments affecting residential and low-income customers, they should contact attorney Mike Smalz at the Ohio Poverty Law Center, at (614) 824-2502 or msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

Leave a Reply