OPAE is involved in a diverse group of cases currently before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) which will have far-reaching impacts on customers.
Utility Transition Dockets – Each regulated Ohio utility has a so-called waiver docket that addresses the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the cases where the utilities filed their disconnection moratoriums and delayed fieldwork and weatherization activities. Now, these dockets are where transition plans for restarting disconnections, clarifying when late and other fees once again apply, and defining rules for PIPP going forward.
The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) has filed a couple of pleadings challenging Commission rulings. First, OCC and several other organizations have appealed an AEP filing that would restart drops from the PIPP program for missing payments or failing to make up payments in October. OCC proposes that drops be discontinued indefinitely. The OCC proposal makes for good rhetoric but is misguided since disconnections for missing PIPP payments won’t actually begin until December. Given that the Winter Reconnect Order kicks in on October 5th, and the Ohio Development Services Agency has already made clear that missed payments roll forward into arrearages and are eligible for credits, the OCC position provides no benefits to vulnerable customers. If a family comes in and requests assistance from the Winter Crisis Program they will not be dropped or required to make up missed payments.
OCC and its fellow travelers also appealed the PUCO’s Winter Reconnection Order, arguing it should kick into effect even earlier than October 5th. However, OCC didn’t file the rehearing application until 27 days after the issuance of the order, on September 12th. Again, it is unclear what benefit this actually provides to customers. While it is true that Summer Crisis Program benefits are for electricity only, agencies are using supplemental Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) funding to pay gas and water utility bills. The need is for customers to contact agencies to get benefits and get onto PIPP or affordable payment plans. Moratorium or not, that is the key to helping customers.
OCC also continues its fight against weatherization and energy efficiency. It recently filed a brief and reply brief opposing the continuation of Vectren’s demand-side manage portfolio, which costs customers $1.21 per month, but pays far greater dividends to customers. OPAE has worked with Vectren since 2005 to create and expand its DSM programs. The first of the programs, which continue to this day, are two low-income programs, one available to customers with incomes up to 200% FPL that can be combined with HWAP, and a second that serves vulnerable families with incomes from 201-300% FPL, with total funding of $2.1 million, or 18% of the portfolio total. OCC has proposed the low-income funding be transferred to a fuel fund to be managed by anyone other than OPAE or its members. A decision is expected within the next couple of months.
OCC, to its credit, has been busy initiating useful litigation as well. It was an OCC filing that prompted the opening of an investigation of FirstEnergy’s finances to analyze the sources of its charitable and political giving. Ohio law bans the utilities from using ratepayer funds for political or charitable purposes. Unfortunately, the PUCO opted not to hire outside auditors, preferring a staff audit and comments from stakeholders like OPAE. We don’t have a forensic accountant on staff, so our ability to pursue this case is somewhat limited. We’ll be reviewing discovery responses to see what we can find out. Look for more information in the coming months.