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Ohio utility regulators have dismissed a plea from consumer advocates to suspend and investigate service disconnections in the wake of roughly 195,000 electricity shutoffs in the months after a pandemic moratorium was lifted.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel joined with Ohio Poverty Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, Advocates for Basic Legal Equity and Pro Seniors last July to seek relief, especially from AEP Ohio. The company accounted for nearly two-thirds of the electricity shutoffs despite serving less than a third of the state’s residential electricity customers.

The PUCO ruled against the groups on technical grounds, saying the purpose of the case was “merely to serve as a public receptacle for the disconnection reports.” Under state law, the regulators could open a new case to look into the issues. However, that seems unlikely in light of other language in the Dec. 1 order. The commission noted it had rejected similar pleas in other cases.

The commission also said that it didn’t see merit in the challenges because the advocates’ filing didn’t establish that the companies had acted unlawfully. However, the regulators also didn’t give the groups any chance for formal pre-hearing fact-finding, called discovery.

As a result, the commission basically ruled against the substance of the groups’ challenges. That rejection has left consumer advocates wondering when, if ever, there will be an opportunity to examine the impacts of utility shutoffs across the state in a systemic manner.

“As we enter the winter heating season with rising energy prices and a continuing pandemic, at-risk Ohioans need the PUCO to exercise its judgment in favor of more protection from the suffering of utility disconnections,” said Merrilee Embs, spokesperson for the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

The issue is especially pressing as the rate of AEP Ohio’s disconnections has surged to nearly pre-pandemic levels. The company shut off customers’ service more than 124,000 times from the time a pause was lifted in September 2020 through May 2021. That was 64% of the total disconnections by Ohio’s regulated electric utilities during that period.

All of Ohio’s regulated electric utilities temporarily suspended disconnections early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and a follow-up PUCO order forbade further shutoffs from March through August 2020. The PUCO then gave utilities the go-ahead to resume disconnections. By June 1, utilities had made 195,000 electricity disconnections.

Consumer advocates say the large number of disconnections, especially from AEP Ohio, warrants scrutiny from regulators. They also want data that could pinpoint where problems are greatest and allow an analysis of possible racial disparities.

An urgent need

There is a human toll to utility shutoffs, especially in the winter, especially in a pandemic.

“Ensuring access to vital utility service is especially important as Ohioans continue to cope with the pandemic,” said PUCO Chair Jenifer French in her 2021 end-of-year message. She referred to the PUCO’s winter reconnect order and newly improved low-income assistance programs as ways to “assist customers this winter heating season and year-round.”

Access to electricity is necessary to keep homes warm in the winter, because even natural gas heating typically uses electric blowers. Access to electricity also provides relief from extreme heat in the summer. And it’s a year-round necessity for lighting, food safety and preparation, medical equipment, education, communications, and other basic activities.

Ohioans in need may be eligible for assistance programs. However, navigating the application process for particular programs can be daunting for some people. Also, funds may be available to defray some costs, such as the $175 payment to resume service under Ohio’s current winter reconnection order. But accessing that money may be difficult.

“There’s such a backlog in the processing of that money through the community action agencies,” said attorney Melissa Linville at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. Agencies may also consider utility assistance to be a lower priority than housing aid. Additionally, various agencies have been overwhelmed as they administer other aid programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“PIPP is great if you’re in it,” said attorney Peggy Lee at Southeast Ohio Legal Services, referring to percentage-of-income payment plans. Applicants whose income is low enough pay only a percentage of their income for utility service. If they pay on time, portions of their past-due amounts are forgiven.

But there are pitfalls. If someone misses payments, even inadvertently, they can have trouble getting back in the program, Lee said. People who get disconnected also can be at risk of losing subsidized housing, because timely payment of utility bills is often a condition of the lease.

Utility disconnections cause additional problems for people with low incomes. They may lose a refrigerator full of food, for example. Or, they could lose the ability to cook meals. Alternatives to buy meals or replace food are often miles away in the rural communities Lee’s organization serves. And public transportation can be very limited if people can’t afford a car, she said.

Families who lose utility service also risk being split up. “Someone could try to get children’s services involved, especially if there [are] cantankerous custody issues,” Lee said.

Linville sees racial disparities among those her organization helps in the Columbus area. “In 2020, our bankruptcy team served 327 African Americans and 155 people who identified as White,” she said.

Yet only 24% of Franklin County’s people are African American, according to U.S. Census data. Fossil fuel reliance intersects with other societal factors that continue to perpetuate systemic racism, including lower average earnings and higher energy burdens for people of color.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Lee’s and Linville’s groups, and other advocacy groups had wanted expanded dates for the reconnection order’s protection, lower limits on the level of PIPP payments and the number of customers who could be cut from the program, and personal notice before any electricity or gas disconnections.

Consumer groups in both the disconnections case and the winter reconnection proceeding also wanted the PUCO to collect shutoff data by zip code. Data on demographics could show where the biggest problems were and help with targeting resources for relief. The data also could allow groups to determine the extent of any racial disparities in utility disconnections. The PUCO denied the request.

“While the Commission is mindful that utility policy and procedures may be applied in a discriminatory manner, the Commission is not aware of and has no reason to believe that the utilities … have applied disconnection requirements, policies, or procedures in an unjust or discriminatory manner,” the regulators said in an October ruling. Very similar language appeared in a 2020 case involving Columbia Gas.

Questions of fairness

When the PUCO refused to freeze further shutoffs this fall, it opined that service disconnections can’t be “suspended repeatedly, year after year, without consequences to the utilities and their ratepayers.”

Critics note that the same pandemic is still going on. They also see other fairness problems, especially in the wake of House Bill 6. The consumer groups had asked that a chunk of FirstEnergy’s fines under its deferred prosecution agreement be set aside for utility customers in need. The PUCO responded that any use for those funds would be determined later.

Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, also noted that regulators have yet to examine whether any of the millions of dollars that AEP spent on dark money groups might have come from ratepayers. Along with Duke and AES Ohio, AEP benefits from HB 6’s ongoing subsidies for two old coal plants, known as the OVEC plants. AEP had also lobbied against a national moratorium of utility shutoffs, he said.

“It’s a question of fairness of them turning off customers who have been affected by the pandemic, while on the other hand charging them money for these uneconomic coal plants,” Anderson said. Coal plant pollution is “especially not good during a pandemic,” he added. “It impacts the respiratory system specifically.”

The regulators’ rulings also feed into criticism about energy justice and the PUCO’s priorities.

“Utilities are public utilities for a reason,” Lee said. Electricity and gas service are not luxuries, but “a fundamental right for someone to have access to. And it would be humane to allow somebody to demonstrate whatever they could to keep those utilities before taking them away,” she said. “Right now, it’s seeming like it could be the other way around.”

“Our low-income clients are part of the public,” Lee added. “And the utility companies do have to answer to the public.”

Consumer groups in the PUCO disconnection case have until Jan. 31 to decide whether to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

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.