In this file photo, a weatherization worker puts moisture barrier and insulation into the crawl space of a home. Credit: Dennis Schroeder / U.S. Department of Energy

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The state consumer advocate says the COVID-19 pandemic justifies diverting funds into bill payment programs.

Ohio’s consumer advocate is asking state regulators to divert funding from two utility energy efficiency programs into bill payment assistance because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel made the argument in pending cases by natural gas utilities Columbia Gas and Vectren Energy, which are seeking to extend their low-income weatherization programs for two years.

While most of the work has been suspended due to the pandemic, supporters of the programs say the move would be short-sighted, potentially costing Ohio hundreds of jobs and robbing families of a chance to lower energy bills.

“Lower-income households often must choose between keeping their homes at healthy and comfortable temperatures or buying necessities like food and medicine,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Efficiency can help lessen the burden of energy costs.”

Families that benefit from Ohio utilities’ low-income weatherization programs are generally among the poorest in the state, said Dave Rinebolt, executive director and counsel for Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, which runs the programs.

“Our typical household is a family of three with one elderly or one disabled person in the house, because they’re priority clients for us,” Rinebolt said. “And their incomes are generally below 120% of the poverty line.” Eligibility technically goes up to twice the poverty level, but most clients are well below that.

About 30% of the work is also in multifamily dwellings. “That’s where you get the poorest of the poor,” Rinebolt said. And while energy savings in a small apartment are generally lower, “we usually save people between one and two months of electricity bills. And that’s not insignificant.”

“Efficiency doesn’t just save energy. It can help with other health and comfort issues as well,” Sawmiller said. Poorly sealed homes let in moisture, for example, which can lead to mold. That in turn can trigger health problems like asthma, “which as we have recently seen makes these already vulnerable communities even more susceptible to respiratory diseases.”

“It’s an important program that they have, and they need to keep it,” said one woman who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons. Initially a leaky roof prevented an accurate energy audit at the home in Dayton’s Five Oaks neighborhood where she lives with her husband, a partly disabled veteran. “They put a new roof on the house,” which the family otherwise couldn’t afford. 

After the energy audit, it turned out that full weatherization of the first floor wasn’t practical because the home is more than 100 years old. Workers were able to install insulation in the attic, however. The program also provided energy-efficient lighting.

“They did everything they could to keep the energy costs down in our house,” she said. “The program is a really good program, and I highly recommend it.”

Ohio Consumers’ Counsel spokesperson J.P. Blackwood said in an email statement that the idea to “repurpose” the energy efficiency program funds is appropriate “given the coronavirus emergency and its impact on consumer finances.” Except for emergency situations, most work under the programs is currently suspended due to emergency orders from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. However, Blackwood added, the agency would recommend diverting the funds “even under the usual circumstances.”

“Ohioans should not be made to subsidize utility-run gas energy efficiency programs, for reasons including that they can buy energy efficiency measures at the store if so inclined,” Blackwood said. “And given that natural gas prices are at historic lows, energy efficiency measures are not so effective for saving money for natural gas consumers.”

OCC also proposed eliminating all energy efficiency programs for non-low-income customers, on the grounds that House Bill 6 gutted the energy efficiency standard in 2019.

‘Short-sighted’ sandbagging?

“Actually the price of gas doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things, because we’re still doing cost-effective measures,” Rinebolt said. To the contrary, “when gas prices are low is when you should invest in efficiency.”

“Energy efficiency remains the cheapest, cleanest option for Ohioans,” said attorney Rob Kelter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who is familiar with the Columbia Gas case. “We can find other ways to assist customers today, while moving forward with programs that enhance customer comfort, lower their bills, and help Ohioans breathe cleaner air.”

“When you look at the minimal cost of the energy efficiency programs and their long-term benefits that help customers save on their bills over a period of many years, we believe OCC’s position is short-sighted,” Kelter said.

The network of nonprofit organizations that make up Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy also administers bill payment assistance programs, Rinebolt said. Ohio will already get additional funding for bill payment assistance under a federal stimulus bill passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional relief may well come from other bills as well, he added.

In contrast, getting rid of utilities’ low-income energy efficiency programs would not only cut off low-income families’ ability to reduce bills on an ongoing basis, but it would also cost about 500 jobs, Rinebolt said. Losing those trained workers would be a blow to the organization.

The proposal to prematurely end all of the gas companies’ efficiency programs could also have broader impacts for Ohio’s energy efficiency sector, in Sawmiller’s view. Before the pandemic struck, Ohio’s energy efficiency sector supported more than 80,000 jobs, he noted. “Preserving these job opportunities is ever more critical during this time of growing unemployment,” he said. “Removing the funding — and therefore the opportunity to work — will only make it harder for Ohioans to bounce back from this horrific pandemic.”

What’s next?

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel’s proposals in the two gas company cases may also raise legal problems that have not yet been briefed by opponents.

“Ohio has a long, rich history of low-income programs,” Rinebolt said. Energy conservation programs continue to be authorized under Ohio law even after HB 6, he noted.

On April 9, his organization and Vectren Energy jointly asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to strike the OCC proposals in that case or allow other parties to file responses. In their view, the OCC’s proposals are “textbook sandbagging” and procedurally improper.

Other parties have yet to respond to the proposal in the Columbia Gas case, which is at an earlier stage in the briefing process.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.