Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

September 2009

In this issue...

 

OCC secures benefits for low-income customers

As natural gas and electric rates have risen over the past five years, so have the number of disconnections. A study conducted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners last year revealed that almost half of all residential consumers are unable to make all utility payments on time. Recent data reveals that more than one in 10 Ohio households experienced a disconnection of either their gas or electric service because of nonpayment in 2008.

There is clearly a correlation between these challenging economic times and unaffordable utility rates, payment patterns and the rising number of disconnections. To combat these disconnections, the first line of defense for the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel is to fight as hard as it can to keep utility costs as low as possible because this helps everyone. This is especially critical for low- and moderate-income households that have limited financial assistance options.

Electric

Consumer advocacy led to agreements with three utilities on electric security plans.

FirstEnergy will provide $6 million over three years for low-income bill assistance. Duke Energy will allocate $1.75 million per year for low-income bill assistance from 2009-2011 for non-PIPP customers. Dayton Power & Light set aside $61 million over seven years for energy efficiency programs, of which $7.7 million is for low-income consumers. An additional $400,000 in annual bill payment assistance will benefit low-income consumers at or below 200 percent of the poverty level or consumers who are at risk of disconnection.

Natural Gas

In the natural gas industry, Columbia Gas will provide $7.1 million in annual funding for the WarmChoice weatherization program, a $1.6 million increase over current funding; $1.85 million over five years for a low-income fuel fund; and will shift billing of security deposits in three installments.

An agreement with Dominion East Ohio achieved $9.5 million for energy efficiency programs, of which $6.5 million is for low-income; $1.2 million for bill payment assistance and education; $240,000 to fund a $4 credit per month for up to 5,000 low income non-PIPP customers; additional limitations on late payment charges; and the billing of security deposits in three installments.

Duke Energy will continue its low-income weatherization program; provide a $4 credit per month for up to 10,000 low usage non-PIPP customers with incomes below 175 percent of the federal poverty level; and eliminate deposits for PIPP customers.

Vectren Energy Delivery of Ohio agreed to provide $4.7 million in energy conservation programs over two years for all customers; a $4 million energy efficiency collaborative with $1.1 million allocated to continue low-income weatherization programs; and the ability for Vectren to file for up to $1 million in additional annual funds for customers at incomes between 200 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. In addition, the first 5,000 non-PIPP, low-use customers can receive a $4 per month discount on their gas bills.

The OCC also agreed in a case that federal pipeline money refunded to four companies be allocated for bill payment assistance to customers with incomes between 175 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The amounts are $2.15 million (Columbia Gas), $200,000 (Dominion), $230,000 (Duke) and $200,000 (Vectren).

Disconnection Rules

The OCC’s second line of defense has been to secure additional funding for low-income customers. In developing revised credit and disconnection rules, a large coalition of consumer advocates, spearheaded by the OCC, collaborated to lower up-front payment requirements for the “one-sixth” payment plan; add additional payment plan options; limit the imposition of collection charges; reduce natural gas Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) payment levels; and achieve the opportunity for PIPP customers to obtain full arrearage credits in 24 months.

The OCC achieved many significant accomplishments on behalf of residential, including low-income, consumers. Whenever possible, the OCC has sought to combine its efforts with many low-income advocates across the state. This record of accomplishment underscores the OCC’s unwavering commitment to help all customers, and specifically those with the greatest need.

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Simple Savings: Change a light bulb to save

The incandescent light bulb could soon become a relic. Congress ordered that all light bulbs must be more efficient than today’s incandescent varieties beginning in 2012. But using a more efficient light bulb does not have to be a waiting game. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are available now and they are saving people money on their electric bills every day.

Compact fluorescent bulbs come in a variety of shapes and brightness and use a fraction of the electricity used by their incandescent equivalents. CFLs last five times longer and cost 75 percent less to run than incandescent light bulbs. If in every American home just one incandescent light bulb was changed to a CFL, it could collectively save more than $8 billion in energy costs.

When a light bulb in your home burns out, do not replace it with another incandescent light bulb. Instead, change it to a CFL. For only a little more up-front cost, the electric savings can really start to add up. For more information about CFL bulbs and how to properly dispose of them, visit the OCC online at www.pickocc.org.

The benefits of switching
Type Life Cost Cost/Yr*
60W bulb 2,000 hrs $0.53 $16.41
14W CFL 10,000 hrs $1.46 $4.00
*Based on a usage of six hours per day.

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New guidelines for energy help

The Ohio Department of Development (ODOD) has released the new income guidelines for heating help this winter.

Ohioans with an annual household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level can apply for aid from the Home Energy Assistance Program. The program is available through May 31, 2010.

For complete information on HEAP contact the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel at 1-877-742-5622.

2009-2010 HEAP Income Guidelines
Size of Household Annual Income
1 $21,660
2 $29,140
4 $44,100
* Add $7,480 for each additional person

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Consumer advocates request electric reliability workshops

In a continuing effort focused on electric service reliability in Ohio, consumer advocates – including the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) – recently asked that a workshop be held on service provided by Ohio’s investor-owned electric utilities. Holding a workshop is among the actions the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) can take to examine specific topics, including requirements stated in Ohio’s new electric law.

The OCC, Northwest Ohio Aggregation Coalition, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Ohio Farmers Union and Pro Seniors, Inc. asked the PUCO for a workshop to address service reliability. At issue is the reliability of service provided by American Electric Power, Dayton Power & Light, Duke Energy and FirstEnergy.

“A workshop – including the active participation of utilities – is needed to determine if enough has been done to maintain wires and other critical elements of the utilities’ distribution systems,” said Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. “From momentary outages during good weather to long-term outages following windstorms, consumers are concerned that not enough has been done to ensure reliable service. Consumers deserve a discussion of the utilities’ performance and the current state of their facilities and equipment.”

The request proposes that the most benefit can be achieved if the utilities initially respond to a number of inquiries to establish a baseline of information and a common understanding of reliability issues and terminology. The OCC and its allies proposed a variety of initial questions as part of the request.

State law requires reliable service from all of Ohio’s state-regulated electric utilities. Over the last several years, the adequacy of the maintenance of electric distribution lines has been questioned by consumer groups, including the OCC.

Ohio’s new electric law contains many reliability-related provisions that have not been explored extensively. For example, a provision requires the PUCO to “examine the reliability of the electric distribution utility’s” system and requires placing “sufficient emphasis on and dedicating sufficient resource to the reliability of [a utility’s] distribution system.” Also, the law calls for the “development of performance standards and targets for service quality for all consumers, including annual achievement reports written in plain language.”

The OCC believes addressing these matters in a workshop format will make an important contribution to the effective implementation Ohio’s electric law.


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Columbia begins installing automatic meter readers

An ambitious five-year project to install automatic meter reading devices to Columbia Gas of Ohio residential and commercial customers began in April when the first upgrades were performed in Toledo, Bowling Green and Findlay.

The installation of the new technology was made available as part of an agreement among the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), Columbia, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) staff and other parties, and approved by the PUCO Oct. 24, 2008.

The cost for the new technology will be included in a new charge which will go into effect in 2010. The charges have a five-year cap on costs for this and other Columbia projects, such as riser repair and replacement and upgrades to its distribution pipeline system. Customers will see an increase of up to $1.10 per month next year and up to an additional $1 per month each of the following three years to a maximum of $5.20 in 2013. However, there will be no additional costs to customers when the actual work is performed at their home or business.

The new system uses radio technology to automatically read a customer’s gas meter from a passing vehicle. The signal is transmitted to a computer inside the vehicle which records the data. Using the AMR system will eliminate estimated bills and the need to access meters inside some customers’ homes.

Columbia will notify customers prior to beginning work in their area. When the upgrades are completed, customers will be informed when their monthly readings will begin. The utility stated that installation takes as little as 20 minutes, generally does not require a technician to enter homes and will not result in a service interruption. Columbia also has assured its customers that personnel will be uniformed, carry identification and travel in marked vehicles.

Customers with questions about the AMR installation procedure should contact the OCC toll free at 1-877-742-5622.


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Rain Gardens: Pretty up yard, help purify water

Stephanie Suter and her husband planned this year to install a rain garden at their Columbus-area home.

Suter knows something about rain gardens. She’s the chairwoman of the Central Ohio Rain Garden Initiative and a habitat conservationist with the Franklin Soil & Water Conservation District. There are similar initiatives in Lucas, Hamilton and Cuyahoga counties.

A rain garden is a landscaped area planted with perennial native plants that can survive in wet and dry conditions. After the first year, the gardens require relatively low maintenance.

The garden, located in naturally occurring or man-made depressions, filters and cleans storm water runoff from parking lots, roofs, streets and sidewalks before it enters local waterways. That eases the burden on city storm drain systems. Rain gardens also help alleviate problems associated with flooding and drainage, recharge the ground water supply and provide habit and food for wildlife, including birds and butterflies. The gardens also are beautiful to look at.

There are 38 rain gardens in Franklin County with 10 more planned this year, including one at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus. Three gardens were installed recently at the new Scioto Audubon Metro Park on the Whittier Peninsula along the Scioto River just south of I-70. A small rain garden, installed in 2007, can be found on East Gay Street in downtown Columbus, just a block from the Statehouse.

Suter said a rain garden costs from $2 to $12 per square foot depending on its size, the number of plants and whether a landscaper is hired to install it.

“People are really getting into it,” said Suter as she stood next to a rain garden at the Metro Park. “It’s instant gratification.”

She said the existing Franklin County gardens soak up an estimated 1.3 million gallons of water a year. She would like that to increase to 1 billion gallons as more gardens are added “one at a time.” Suter said most of the interest has been in rain gardens in urban settings, but there is a need for them in rural settings as well, to filter agricultural runoff.

Information about rain gardens can be found at the conservation district’s website: www.franklinswcd.org or at www.centralohioraingardens.org.


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An airy fix to utility costs

Fewer people today believe a clothes dryer is a necessity compared to three years ago, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Yet, 90 percent of American homes have a dryer that they use on average 400 times per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But more people are switching to clotheslines and the sun as their dryer.

A dryer is typically the second most costly electric appliance in a home, costing about $85 a year to operate depending on the number of loads being dried. The most expensive appliance to run is a refrigerator. A gas dryer is less expensive to operate than an electric one, costing 15 to 20 cents per load compared to 30 to 40 cents per load, according to the website www.consumerenergycenter.com.

Here are some dryer-related tips for cutting your electric bill from the website www.michaelbluejay.com.

1. Air dry clothes instead of using a dryer;

2. When replacing an electric dryer, get a gas dryer if you already have gas service;

3. When replacing a dryer, get one with a moisture sensor;

4. Get a front end washer, which gets more water out of your clothes;

5. Use a spin dryer before putting clothes in a regular dryer;

6. Clean the lint from a dryer after every load; and

7. Use your washer and dryer very early in the morning or at night during off-peak hours.

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