A person rings a doorbell at an apartment building.

Ohio ratepayer advocates are fighting to preserve a decades-old rule they say is an important consumer protection: personal notice before electricity disconnections.

Digital “smart” meters have done away with the need for utilities to send a technician to a customer’s home in order to shut off service. Now a company can cut off power at the click of a mouse when someone falls behind on payment.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has already given two of the state’s regulated utilities permission to forgo final, in-person warnings before shutting off service for non-payment for customers with smart meters, and a third company is seeking the same exemption.

While an employee no longer needs to manually flip a switch on-site to start or stop service, ratepayer advocates say personal contact is critical to protect vulnerable customers who may have missed mailed notices or robocalls. The visits provide an eleventh-hour opportunity to keep the lights on.

“I think that there is immense benefit in visiting a home before shutting off the power,” said Sanya Carley, an Indiana University professor whose research focuses on energy justice. From interviews with people across the country, her group learned that many people miss other attempted notifications. An in-person visit could have let them make a payment and avoid disconnection and fees, along with “all of the social, mental, and economic strain associated with disconnections.”

Ohio rules have long required both a prior mailing and then personal notice on the day of disconnection. Companies may give crew members discretion to make extended payment arrangements or provide other ways to avoid disconnection

The rise of smart meters has started to erode that expectation. Over the last decade, Ohio utilities have installed hundreds of thousands of smart meters, which unlock the potential for new billing methods such as time-of-use rates, in which customers pay less for electricity at certain times of day, often when there is less demand and more renewable power on the grid. 

Starting in 2015, the PUCO allowed AEP Ohio to begin remote shut-offs as part of a pilot program. A few years later it expanded the area where AEP Ohio didn’t have to knock on doors before disconnections. The PUCO also gave a waiver to Duke Energy Ohio’s electric utility, which has smart meters throughout its Ohio territory. AES Ohio recently asked the PUCO to let it skip personal visits, too.

The issue was moot for roughly half of 2020 after regulators issued a disconnection moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in September 2020, however, the state has seen a resurgence in utility shutoffs, including roughly 195,000 electricity disconnections from September 2020 through May 2021.

It’s unclear whether the presence of smart meters is making utilities more prone to issuing shutoffs, but critics and even regulators see a connection. AEP Ohio had more residential smart meters than any of Ohio’s regulated electric utilities as of last summer. Among investor-owned utilities that report shutoff data to the utilities commission, AEP made nearly two-thirds of the disconnections from September 2020 through May 2021, despite serving less than a third of those companies’ customers. Six years earlier, before remote shutoffs, the company had about a third of the total disconnections.

It’s “not surprising that, with the installation of smart meters and the associated efficiencies of [advanced metering], the number of disconnections has increased,” the PUCO wrote in an October order.

It’s a worrying trend for ratepayer advocates, who raised red flags based on the data from AEP’s initial pilot program.

“The disconnection rate in the [pilot program] area is disproportionately high,” the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy wrote in a 2017 filing. People in AEP Ohio’s test area were only 11% of the utility’s total residential customers. Yet they accounted for nearly 30% of all AEP Ohio disconnections reported by the company in 2016.

Also, the advocates noted, company data didn’t prove automated calls gave actual notice. Barely one-fourth of the automated phone calls were answered by a live person, according to evidence in the case. Roughly one in seven calls weren’t answered by either a person or a machine.

Consumer advocates say in-person notice allows utility workers to explain what steps to take to make a payment or get the power back on quickly. At the discretion of the utility company, the crew member might also make extended payment arrangements for the resident. 

“This consumer protection has been available to Ohio residential consumers for decades and has helped countless Ohioans avoid disconnection,” Southeast Ohio Legal Services, the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, and other consumer advocates argued in this year’s winter reconnection case at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. 

Attorney Peggy Lee at Southeast Ohio Legal Services remembers a case in which a tenant was able to avoid shutoff because the AEP worker found out that it was not an owner-occupied property and the tenant did not get a shutoff notice. She said it is common for landlords to try “self-help evictions” by unlawfully shutting off utilities.

Even if a threatened disconnection isn’t a surprise, a personal visit could alert utilities to cases where people are vulnerable or need an extension because of problems getting through to agencies and getting aid, especially during the pandemic. (Ohio’s rules on medical exceptions are very limited, though.) 

“The people we see that are struggling to get ongoing utility coverage are often the lowest-income, most housing-insecure people,” said Melissa Linville at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. 

AEP and other utilities that have adopted contactless service shutoffs have said they continue to follow the state’s rules for disconnections, and that in-person visits can also expose their employees to hazards such as animals or threats.

“Our duty is to follow rules regarding disconnection of service, which outside audits have verified that we are,” said AEP Ohio spokesperson Scott Blake.

A September 2020 audit by PUCO compliance investigator Samantha Boerstler found AEP Ohio complied with most requirements while also flagging eight violations, including one dealing with the adequacy of the notices mailed to customers.

“Non-payment for service leads to disconnection; AMI [smart] meters are not the cause of disconnections,” Blake said, adding that shutoffs are the “last resort” when payment arrangements can’t be worked out. 

Consumer groups are pressing for a pause and investigation into utility disconnections as part of a broader case. They have until Jan. 31 to decide whether to appeal a PUCO ruling dismissing their requests.

Meanwhile, the PUCO has yet to rule on AES Ohio’s request to skip the personal notice requirement. If AES likewise gets a waiver, fewer than half the state’s residential ratepayers would still be entitled to a personal visit by the end of 2024. The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the Ohio Poverty Law Center, and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality filed objections on Dec. 23.

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.