Dayton utility asks regulators to ease power cuts

By Jake Zuckerman
Ohio Capital Newspaper

A Dayton-area utility company has called on state regulators to relax the rules about shutting off power to customers who are behind on their utility bills.

State regulations require that utility companies, after filing written notices with customers who owe them money, send an employee for a final home visit before shutting off their power.

AES Ohio, formerly Dayton Power and Light Co., filed an application with the Ohio Utilities Commission last month seeking permission to skip the last step in person in the disconnection process. The waiver would not apply to clients who require special medical care and who provide “appropriate documentation”.

Three organizations representing electrical customers – Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Ohio Poverty Law Center and Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel – have asked PUCO to allow them to intervene in the case.

They said the utility company billed customers $ 77.6 million for the new smart meters; now the utility is trying to use “smart” meters against customers.

“Just in time for the holidays, the cold Ohio winter and the outbreak of the pandemic, DP&L wants the PUCO to waive long-standing protections for consumers against utility disconnections,” the three groups said.

Mary Ann Kabel, spokesperson for AES, said in a statement that the proposal complied with the disconnection procedures approved by the PUCO for other utilities in Ohio. Clients will always receive four notifications before any disconnection, and clients can be reconnected remotely.

When the pandemic began, governments rushed to block power cuts, given the economic devastation from COVID-19 and the need for people to stay at home. From the end of July 2020, however, PUCO began allowing utilities to resume the practice.

Utilities have started cutting electrical services for hundreds of thousands of customers in Ohio. AES Ohio, between September 2020 and May 2021, disconnected nearly 14,000 customers who collectively owed $ 7.2 million, according to documents filed with the PUCO.

By comparison, American Electric Power Ohio disconnected more than 124,000 customers who collectively owed $ 60 million. Duke Energy has cut off more than 28,000 customers who collectively owed $ 15 million. FirstEnergy’s three Ohio utilities cut more than 29,000 customers who collectively owed $ 10 million.

Ellis Jacobs, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which provides legal aid to poor and marginalized people in west-central Ohio, said the in-person visit is a key consumer protection. The waiver takes away one last chance for people to settle.

“If you really make it easy to disconnect and take away the ability for customers to shut them down on the last day, you’re going to end up with a lot more disconnects,” he said.

The PUCO acceded to similar requests from AEP and Duke, starting in 2015, limited to their customers with the most advanced meters, according to PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling. Waivers were subject to various forms of additional communications instead of in-person notification.

When AEP renewed and extended its exemption, it indicated in a file sent to PUCO that it had disconnected remote meters 63,839 times without personal contact on the day of disconnection.

Bruce Weston, executive director of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, which represents the interests of residential electricity payers in PUCO cases, said in a statement the state should keep its residents connected to their utilities during a pandemic ongoing and related economic crisis.

“People are now in the winter heating season with rising energy prices and a continuing pandemic,” he said. “We are concerned that Ohio families will be hurt already if utilities are allowed to continue disconnects during this difficult time.”

AES Ohio serves 531,000 customers in west-central Ohio. Its parent company, AES, made $ 46 million in profits in 2020, up from $ 1.2 billion in 2018.