Nonprofits that help customers afford their utility bills know what is needed. The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) may be the watchdog for Ohio’s utilities customers, but its recent proposals to kill energy efficiency programs will lead to job losses, lost energy savings, and won’t address the problems faced by Ohio’s newly unemployed.
OCC has been trying to kill energy efficiency for years, and is now cynically using the COVID-19 crisis to push its agenda. These programs employ hundreds of people, and the OCC proposal would leave them permanently unemployed. OCC wants to take the dollars that help elderly and disabled and other customers to help pay bills. Governor DeWine listens to health experts. When it comes to helping consumers pay bills, the 52 community nonprofit members of Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE) are the experts. And OCC is wrong. OPAE members are already helping families in all 88 counties pay their bills and save energy. Staff also deal with emergencies: broken furnaces; leaking hot water tanks; dangerous electrical issues.
We know how to care for Ohio’s most vulnerable. Our network supports new bill assistance funding, but not stealing funding from other priorities. The current Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) has a budget of $157 million for bill payment assistance. When the pandemic tightened its grip, Congress opened its wallet in the big COVID-19 bill and provided Ohio with another $46.5 million. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association on Monday requested that Congress add $4.3 billion for HEAP in the next COVID-19 supplemental; over $80 million would come to Ohio. There are also payment plans including the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). We have money and options.
Agencies expect a surge of applications in mid-April when the first batch of the newly unemployed has been out of work for 30 days. If we don’t get a surge it means people won’t deal with utility bills until the moratoria ends. Either way, there will be a surge, the only question is timing. We are working with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the Ohio Development Services Agency to develop long-term strategies for getting people out of hock to the utilities. OCC is not at the table.
The Vectren and Columbia Gas energy programs help families make their homes efficient, reducing utility bills, and in the case of low-income programs, solving a host of other safety and health issues in the home. The benefits last for years, not months. All of this comes down to what’s right for vulnerable Ohioans. OCC should work with, not against, professionals like our members who understand the needs and the solutions to energy poverty. OCC’s proposal is misguided compassion. Eliminating utility efficiency programs will cause job losses and won’t fix affordability problems long term. We have policies and programs to deal with short-term needs. Don’t substitute band-aids for permanent solutions.
Dave Rinebolt is executive director of Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (www.opae.org). He has worked with low-income utility programs since 1983, and currently sits on the Governing Board of the National Energy Utility Affordability Coalition which develops and promotes utility assistance programs in Congress and nationwide. He most recently was the Program Manager of the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program. Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy is a statewide network of Community Action Agencies and other nonprofits that provide bill payment assistance and weatherization services to low-income Ohioans.