Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

WINTER 2013

In This Issue:


To Shop or Not To Shop: Natural Gas Consumers Keep the Choice … For Now

Most Ohioans have the choice to purchase their natural gas through their local utility's "standard offer" or to shop for their natural gas from an energy marketer. This choice is the customer's to make today – but choosing the standard offer may be at risk in the future.

choiceSome in the industry are looking to eliminate customers' ability to purchase natural gas at a standard offer through their local utility. If this choice were eliminated, consumers would need to choose an energy marketer for their natural gas or be part of a government aggregation program.

Residential customers of Dominion East Ohio Gas (Dominion) and Columbia Gas of Ohio (Columbia) will continue to have the option of purchasing natural gas through those utilities at a standard offer price for at least the next few years.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) protected the availability of the standard offer for residential customers for at least a few more years in separate case settlements with both Dominion and Columbia. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) approved both settlements in January.

Also in January, the OCC Governing Board issued a resolution in support of preserving the standard offer. To view this resolution online, please visit www.pickocc.org/about/resolutions/2013/january.pdf

Currently, Dominion and Columbia conduct a competitive auction to set the standard offer price of natural gas. The auction has been very successful in lowering the price that many Ohioans pay for natural gas.

Without the settlements OCC signed, Dominion and Columbia could have proposed an elimination of their standard offer for residential customers at any time. The Columbia settlement preserves the standard offer for residential customers until at least April 2017, and the Dominion settlement preserves the option for consumers until at least April 2016. After that, the standard offer would continue for consumers unless others request to end it, and the PUCO approves their request.

For non-residential (business) Dominion customers, the standard offer will only be available until April 2013. For non-residential Columbia customers, the standard offer will be available until at least April 2014. OCC did not participate in areas of the settlement related to non-residential customers.

Regardless of which supplier a customer chooses for natural gas, the local utility remains responsible for delivering the natural gas through its pipelines and for line repair, billing and other customer service functions.

By Marty Berkowitz


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Fuel Funds Provide Relief from Energy Bills

energy-bills

If you or someone you know is struggling to pay an energy bill, keep reading.

A number of electric and natural gas utilities offer heating assistance in the form of fuel funds. Fuel funds can help income-eligible consumers pay their electric or natural gas bills. Some funds come from donations by other customers, with the utility matching the contribution or providing some other type of contribution to the fund. Other fuel funds come directly from a utility's shareholders. The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC), utilities and others have negotiated shareholder-funded fuel funds throughout the state in cases at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO).

The following list includes fuel funds that are currently (or soon to be) available to income-eligible customers of some of Ohio's electric and natural gas utilities:

American Electric Power:

Neighbor to Neighbor Program
Available: January – April 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $500 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level ($57,625 for a family of four)
Other Conditions: Income-eligible applicants must first apply for any other available assistance programs (HEAP, E-HEAP or others). Applicants must have paid at least $150 on their AEP account in the 90 days prior to their application (except senior citizens). All applicants must have a minimum balance of $100 on their AEP bill.
How to apply: Contact www.dollarenergy.org or AEP at (800) 672-2231


Columbia Gas of Ohio:

Columbia Fuel Fund
Available: Winter 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $250 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($46,100 for a family of four)
Other conditions: Disconnection status* not required except for PIPP Plus customers
How to apply: Contact your local Community Action Agency (by searching www.oacaa.org) or Columbia Gas of Ohio at (800) 344-4077 or www.columbiagasohio.com

HeatShare Program
Available: January – April 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $250 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 150% of the Federal Poverty Level ($34,575 for a family of four)
Other Conditions: Households experiencing unexpected hardship may also apply
How to apply: Contact your local Salvation Army (by searching www.salvationarmyusa.org) or Columbia Gas of Ohio at (800) 344-4077

Crisis Fuel Fund
Available: April 2013 until funds are depleted
Consumer Benefit: Up to $175 per customer
Eligibility: up to 175% of the Federal Poverty Level ($40,070 for a family of four)
Other Conditions: Disconnection status required*
How to apply: Contact your local Community Action Agency (by searching www.oacaa.org) or Columbia Gas of Ohio at (800) 344-4077


Dayton Power & Light:

DP&L Fuel Fund
Available: Spring 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $250 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($46,100 for a family of four)
How to apply: Contact your local Community Action Agency (by searching www.oacaa.org) or call (614) 224-8500


Dominion East Ohio:

EnergyShare Program
Available: January - April 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $500 for heating bills; up to $250 for deposits
Eligibility: Must meet one of the following conditions:

  • Up to 150% of the Federal Poverty Level ($34,575 for a family of four);
  • Head of household is unemployed; or
  • Have a demonstrated personal or family crisis

Other Conditions: Applicants less than 60 years of age must be in disconnection status* to apply
How to apply: Contact your local Salvation Army (by searching www.salvationarmyusa.org) or contact Dominion East Ohio (800) 362-7557


Duke Energy Ohio:

HeatShare Program
Available: January - mid April 2013
Consumer Benefit: Up to $300 per customer
Eligibility: Based on need (does not necessarily follow income guidelines)
Other Conditions: Disconnection status required*
How to apply: Contact the Salvation Army at (513) 721-0795


FirstEnergy:

FirstEnergy Fuel Fund
Available: March 2013 until funds are depleted
Consumer Benefit: Up to $250 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($46,100 for a family of four).
How to apply: Contact your local Community Action Agency (by searching www.oacaa.org) or call (614) 224-8500

Ohio Fuel Fund
Available: Year Round
Consumer Benefit: Up to $300 / Hardship – Up to $500 per customer
Eligibility: Up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($46,100 for a family of four)
How to apply: Visit http://goo.gl/7fZcH for a list of local service providers or call OCC toll free at 1-877-PICKOCC (1-877-742-5622)

For more information about other types of assistance for paying utility bills, please visit www.pickocc.org/publications/factsheets-assistance.shtml

By Ray Foeller

* Note: Disconnection status could mean a customer has received a disconnection notice or their service has already been disconnected.

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Legislation Affected Ohio Utility Consumers in 2012

The Ohio General Assembly considered several bills in 2012 that could impact Ohioans' utility rates and services. Governor Kasich signed into law an energy bill, water bill, and budget bill. The General Assembly also considered, but did not pass into law, a bill about telephone service rates and availability.

legislationOhio General Assembly preserves current OCC funding
The General Assembly and the Governor determine the funding level for the consumer advocacy of the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC). Traditionally, the budgets for OCC and other state agencies are reviewed every two years.

In 2012, Gov. Kasich proposed a "Mid-Biennium Budget Review" (House Bill 487) to revisit the previously enacted two-year state budget.

In the original two-year budget, OCC's funding was scheduled for a 50% reduction to occur in two steps (a 35% reduction in July 2011 and a 15% reduction in July 2012). Through the leadership of several legislators, including then Senate President Tom Niehaus and Senator Shannon Jones, an amendment was added to the Mid-Biennium Budget Review Bill to prevent the second step in the reduction of OCC's funding. That action preserved those funds for use in OCC's advocacy for Ohio utility consumers.

The funding for OCC is provided through an assessment on utilities and other entities regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). OCC's funding is not generated through tax dollars.

OCC negotiates consumer protections as part of water legislation
In 2011, House Bill 379 was introduced in the Ohio General Assembly. The Bill would have allowed investor-owned (not municipal) water and sewer utilities more flexibility in how they collect certain costs from their customers. In 2012, OCC worked with legislators and other stakeholders to improve the bill for consumers.

The original version of the Bill would have allowed water and sewer utilities to collect more costs in rate cases, establish a surcharge to collect state and federal taxes, and increase other charges on customers' bills. OCC helped protect consumers by negotiating to remove the provision allowing a tax surcharge on customers' bills and by reducing other potential charges. The Bill was signed into law in December.

Telephone legislation stalls in Ohio House of Representatives
The Ohio General Assembly considered legislation during 2012 (Senate Bill 271) that would have allowed telephone companies that meet certain conditions to withdraw basic local telephone service (generally landline service with dial tone only) from their customers. OCC expressed several concerns to the General Assembly regarding Senate Bill 271 and its potential impact on Ohioans.

The Bill passed through the Senate in February 2012, but was not taken up for a vote in the House of Representatives.

"OCC thanks the many legislators and stakeholders who expressed their concerns for telephone consumers," stated Ohio Consumers' Counsel Bruce Weston. "We are pleased that the General Assembly protected the affordability and reliability of Ohioans' telephone services."

General Assembly passes energy legislation
Changes to Ohio's energy laws (Senate Bill 315) were proposed in the General Assembly.

One of the major changes in the Bill encourages the development of combined heat and power projects. These are projects that allow industrial facilities to capture their waste heat and energy and use it to power their facilities. The Bill enabled utilities to apply the energy savings from these projects to meet the state's energy efficiency requirements.

OCC proposed a few amendments to the Bill to protect residential utility customers. These included changes regarding energy efficiency, smart grid, electric transmission and distribution infrastructure. OCC's recommendations were included in the final version of Senate Bill 315 that was signed into law.

By Amy Kurt


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Aggregation: A New Option for Some Electricity and Natural Gas Consumers

In 2012, consumers in 24 Ohio communities voted in support of choosing a new way to purchase energy for their homes: community aggregation. Aggregation is the process by which a local government uses the buying power of many customers in a community to purchase electricity or natural gas on their behalf.

While savings are not necessarily guaranteed, many communities are able to obtain favorable prices from energy marketers to offer discounted energy rates to their citizens. After your community has secured an energy offer, they will send all members of the community a notice to either opt-in or opt-out of the offer. Before making this decision, it is important to compare the energy aggregation offer to the current rate on your energy bills. Find your current electricity rate by looking for the "price to compare" on your most recent electric bill. Look for your natural gas rate by locating the "Standard Choice Offer" or "SCO" rate on your most recent bill (Duke Energy customers should look for the "GCR" rate).

/gas/factsheets-gas.shtml /electric/factsheets-electric.shtml aggregation factsheets-gas factsheets-electric There are more than 274 communities in the state of Ohio that have become aggregators since the law allowing for community aggregation went into effect in 2001. Of these 274 communities, 148 aggregate exclusively for electricity, 60 for natural gas and 66 for both forms of energy.

In addition, under Ohio law, local governments may band together into an aggregation. In northeast Ohio, communities established a regional buying group called Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC). NOPEC currently represents 162 member communities in negotiating energy contracts.

One of the major steps local governments must take in order to become an aggregator is to pass a ballot initiative by popular vote. The ballot measure must specify whether the aggregation will be for electricity, natural gas, or both. After an initiative passes, consumers who do not wish to be part of an aggregation program have an opportunity to make that choice.

Many community aggregation ballot measures were considered in Ohio during the 2012 primary and general election cycles. Of the 32 local governments that considered aggregating their community's energy supply, 24 measures passed and eight measures failed.

Once voters approve an aggregation ballot initiative, the local government must then develop a plan to implement the program. Before adopting such a plan, a minimum of two local public hearings must be held. After the community has chosen an energy supplier, a notice specifying the rate, terms and conditions of the offer must be sent to consumers. The notice must also specify the procedure for consumers who wish to withdraw, or opt-out, from the aggregation program.

By Chris Verich


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Learn How to Protect Yourself from Scams at National Consumer Protection Week Events

Today's consumers face a variety of challenges. From safeguarding against potential scams, protecting their credit history or merely looking to save money on utility bills, consumers need to be more knowledgeable than ever.

March 3-9, 2013 is designated as National Consumer Protection Week. The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) will join government agencies and others in informing consumers about ways to protect themselves from scams and reduce their utility bills. During the week, OCC will offer presentations about utility issues at events across the state.

As energy choices have expanded, questions about energy suppliers and their contracts have increased. OCC offers information about electric and natural gas choices on its website.

For electric offers, please visit www.pickocc.org/electric/choice.shtml. For natural gas offers, please visit www.pickocc.org/gas/choice.shtml.

Consumer Tip:
Read your utility bills, including the fine print. By understanding what is on your monthly bills, you can avoid being charged for items you do not want or need.

To view a list of events scheduled during National Consumer Protection Week, visit the Attorney General's website, www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/NCPW. For more information about consumer protection issues, visit the OCC's website, www.pickocc.org/publications/factsheet-master-list.shtml.

By Chris Verich


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Share Your Experience About PIPP Plus

Utility payments are a large part of the monthly budget for many Ohio households. Consumers struggling to pay their energy bills have several options for assistance.

One program available to Ohioans is the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) Plus. PIPP Plus allows income-eligible households to pay a percentage of their income each month instead of the full amount of their electric and/or natural gas bills. The balance on the account (the difference between what is paid and what is actually owed from usage) is called an arrearage. Consumers can reduce arrearage debt by paying their PIPP Plus payment on time and in full, also known as arrearage crediting.

The PIPP Plus program will be reviewed by its program administrators this year. OCC invites consumers and organizations to send in their thoughts and suggestions, so OCC can provide input to the program administrators on your behalf. This information may be provided to OCC by emailing occ@occ.state.oh.us, using our online form at www.pickocc.org/contact/question.php or writing the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, 10 West Broad Street, 18th Floor, Columbus, Ohio 43215. Please note that information sent to OCC, a state agency, may be considered a public record.

Share your thoughts on:

  • Payment levels – Do the new payment levels help make it easier for PIPP Plus participants to pay utility bills?

  • Customer education – How informed are PIPP Plus customers about the requirements for enrolling and participating in the program?

  • Conservation and efficiency – What incentive programs would encourage PIPP Plus customers to conserve and reduce energy? What are effective ways to educate participants about conservation and efficiency programs?

  • Arrearage crediting – Have the changes to the arrearage crediting portion of PIPP Plus helped participants to pay past amounts owed?

  • Any other input?

OCC also will develop proposals to make the electric and natural gas PIPP Plus programs more similar.

Additionally, OCC would like to hear about issues that consumers are encountering related to utility credit and disconnection processes. These issues could include the effectiveness of payment arrangements, notices and medical certifications.

By Erin Biehl


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Join us for our new webinar series!

  • „Coming up in April: Tips to save on summer energy bills
  • Coming up in July: Energy choice … Understanding the fine print

webinarOCC will host web-based seminars, or "webinars," on different utility topics throughout the year. Join OCC to learn more about important utility issues in the comfort of your home or office.

Email occ@occ.state.oh.us for registration information or to send us topics you would like to learn about!


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