In the Nov.-Dec. 2011 online edition of Consumers' Corner, the OCC reported it reached an agreement with Duke Energy Ohio and several others that was expected to lower electric bills in 2012 for residential customers. This expectation was confirmed in December by the results of an auction that will significantly reduce rates for residential customers.
A residential customer who takes service from Duke's standard service offer and uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity will pay about $108 per month in the winter of 2012. Residential customers paid more than $130 for the same usage in December.
Four additional auctions will be conducted during the next two years. These auctions are expected to set the price for Duke's electric generation service from June 2013 through May 2015.
In addition to the competitive auctions, the settlement supports economic development, provides help to low-income customers for weatherization, and continues the residential renewable energy credit program.
By Anthony Rodriguez
Residential AEP Ohio customers may have noticed several messages on their January bill that are the result of two rate plan agreements approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) in December. These two plans will affect the cost of distribution and generation electric services.
The two rate plans increased the monthly electricity cost for residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) by $6.83, according to AEP Ohio. A bill calculator available from AEP Ohio shows that monthly usage at 1,000 kWh will cost residential customers $120.02 in the Columbus Southern Power rate zone and $119.41 in the Ohio Power rate zone.
The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) helped gain significant benefits for residential customers in a settlement of the distribution rate case. The proposed $93 million distribution rate increase was eliminated and a $50 million benefit will be applied to customer bills through May 2015. The settlement also provides $1 million annually to the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program to aid low-income customers.
However, the OCC opposed a settlement that others had signed in AEP Ohio's electric security plan case where generation prices and other charges (including a distribution-investment charge) would be determined. The PUCO decided the case by modifying the settlement, which is a result more favorable to customers than the settlement some parties (but not OCC) had proposed. The PUCO lowered the proposed base generation rate increase by half and allowed communities that passed electric aggregation measures in November 2011 to be eligible to obtain market-priced capacity from AEP so they may be able to offer lower-priced electricity to community residents.
The OCC has asked the PUCO to rehear part of its ruling on the electric security plan Jan. 13. The OCC specifically opposed the approval of a distribution-investment charge that AEP Ohio did not show it needed. The charge adds more than 13 percent to distribution charges on customers' bills.
Also of interest is that the electric security plan allows AEP Ohio's two distribution utilities to merge into one company, beginning in 2012. Columbus Southern Power and Ohio Power are now operating under the Ohio Power name.
While rates for electric generation service will remain the same for all AEP Ohio residential customers, separate distribution rates for Columbus Southern Power and Ohio Power will exist until at least May 2015. This continuation of separate rates is consistent with the agreement in the AEP Ohio distribution rate case.
By Anthony Rodriguez
Consumers should be aware of two bills making their way through the Ohio legislature that could have a significant effect on certain telephone and water services for Ohio customers.
Telephone companies are seeking to further deregulate telephone service in Ohio, in Senate Bill 271 (SB 271). This legislation would allow some major telephone companies, such as AT&T and Cincinnati Bell, to withdraw their regulated basic telephone services under certain circumstances.
The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) is concerned that this legislation might leave some consumers without affordable basic telephone service or service quality protections.
Specifically, the bill would allow a telephone company to withdraw its telephone services after giving its customers and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) 90 days notice. The withdrawal of services could occur if the telephone company meets a competitive test. But the competitive test was developed for allowing pricing flexibility and not for allowing something as severe as withdrawing regulated basic telephone service from consumers. The result may be customers will have little to no options for comparable telephone services. While SB 271 would require the PUCO to address this possibility, any remedy for consumers is not well defined.
The legislation also would remove the minimum service quality standards for telephone companies determined to be fully competitive. Ohio law currently requires all telephone companies to meet minimum telephone service quality standards for telephone customers who purchase basic telephone services. These service quality standards include protections for customers against lengthy service outages, disconnections without notice, and unreasonable bill payment timelines, among other things.
Major changes were just made to Ohio telecommunications law in September 2010, when previous regulations were loosened. The 2010 law allows companies to increase monthly rates up to $1.25 each year if they meet certain minimum competitive requirements and allows basic service rates for Lifeline customers to increase. The 2010 law did contain a number of compromises for consumer protection: a Select Committee was created to produce a report on the impact of this law by September 2014; the PUCO was given the discretion (with consumer protection standards) to rule on company requests to withdraw regulated basic services; and minimum (albeit reduced) standards were maintained for telephone service quality. These consumer compromises are at risk in SB 271, as described above.
Investor-owned water companies such as Ohio American Water and Aqua Ohio would have more leeway in how they collect certain costs from customers should House Bill 379 pass as proposed. The bill would allow water and sewer utilities to seek collection of more costs in rate cases, establish a surcharge on customers' bills to collect state and federal taxes, and increase customers' rates by up to 15 percent outside of filing a formal rate case by applying a "system improvement charge" that currently is limited to a 9 percent increase on customers' bills.
Each one of these proposed changes is a concern for customers. Many Ohio consumers are already dealing with affordability issues regarding their water and sewer services. This bill would allow a water utility more ways to increase rates than the existing regulatory process for rate cases.
The OCC is working with the legislature to encourage amendments that would provide protections to consumers in each of these bills.
By Anthony Rodriguez
Some Ohio telephone companies now have the ability to annually increase monthly basic local service rates for Lifeline customers by up to $1.25. Lifeline programs provide financial assistance to low-income residents and help ensure they have affordable telephone service, either through a conventional wireline company or through a qualified wireless provider.
When Ohio's new telecommunications law became effective in 2010, traditional telephone companies were allowed to annually raise their monthly basic service rates by up to $1.25 in service areas where the company could show that two or more competitive options were available. The increase did not immediately apply to Lifeline customers. The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) and others advocated for Lifeline customers to be exempt from the annual price increases, and the Ohio Legislature agreed to freeze Lifeline rates through 2011.
Lifeline customers will continue to receive a discount for basic local service, but are now subject to the same $1.25 monthly increase as non-Lifeline customers. Lifeline customers of AT&T Ohio were notified in November of increases to their telephone rates. The new rates went into effect Jan. 4.
By Marty Berkowitz
Natural gas accidents have been in the news lately. Recent explosions in Cincinnati and Fairport Harbor have caused millions of dollars in property damage. In San Bruno, California, an entire neighborhood was destroyed in 2010 by a pipeline accident and eight people were killed.
Typically, natural gas service is safe and reliable. Ohio law requires natural gas utilities to follow gas pipeline safety standards administered by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO).
The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) places a priority on public safety concerns and contributes its recommendations to the PUCO when the standards are reviewed. Just as important the OCC urges residential consumers to be familiar with the signs of a natural gas leak and to know what to do in such an event.
Taking immediate action is the best way for consumers to prevent widespread damage in cases where signs of a gas leak are present. If you are in the house and either smell an odor similar to rotten eggs or hear the hiss of a leaking pipeline, you should quickly leave the house and call your local fire department or your natural gas company. Take the same measures if the leak is found in an outdoor pipeline and you see an area of your yard where vegetation has died, water is bubbling or dirt is blowing.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that, if breathed, can be fatal. The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning increase when appliances are not in proper working order and the gas is allowed to build up inside an improperly ventilated house. During power outages, carbon monoxide buildup can occur when people attempt to heat their homes by using a gas stove or a generator inside the house.
The OCC urges customers seeking alternative heating sources never to take these steps. And residents should equip their homes with carbon monoxide detectors. If you suspect there is any carbon monoxide in the home, leave at once and call the fire department from a neighbor's house.
By Marty Berkowitz
No matter how much money consumers pay for their utility services, finding ways to lower their monthly cost is a goal most share. And whether you're an energy savvy consumer or just starting to take action to be more efficient, there are ways to save energy that will help reduce monthly costs.
Our electronic lifestyles can make electric bills expensive quickly. Devices that make our lives easier are often vampire power users – meaning they use electricity even when you turn them off. One of the biggest culprits is a cable television set top box. Turn it off and it still draws about 18 watts of electricity. And if the box has digital video recording ability, it uses a whopping 44 watts when it's "off."
Plugging your home entertainment and computer set ups into smart power strips can help lessen vampire power. The way the strips work is they have a control outlet with several other outlets that turn off completely when the appliance is turned off. It has outlets that keep powered all the time too. For example, the DVD player, the home entertainment system and the cable box can all be set to turn off when the TV is off. You can use a regular power strip too. Just remember to flip the switch to cut the vampire power.
Dishwashers made today clean dirty dishes quite easily and efficiently. What you probably didn't know is they use less hot water than washing the dishes by hand and leaving the water running. Depending on the dishwasher, the hot-dry cycle causes as much as 50 percent of the cost to wash a full load of dishes. As an energy-saving alternative, you can use the air-dry option instead. If your dishwasher doesn't have this air-dry option, you can open its door after the final rinse and let the dishes dry that way.
The majority of your monthly electric bill (60 percent) is to pay for the generation of electricity. With more competition, you may be able to experience savings on your electric bills. The Ohio Consumers' Counsel has a chart of the available competitors that allow you to shop for providers of the electric generation part of your bill. When exploring these options, look for the "price to compare" on your electric bill. That's the price a competitor has to beat in order for you to save money. It's also important to know that the price to compare can change monthly depending on your usage or other factors, so it may be valuable to see how the price to compare has changed in the past.
Using a humidifier can make you feel warmer in colder months. Conversely, using a dehumidifier in the summer can make you feel cooler. With proper humidity, you can adjust your thermostat, save energy and still feel comfortable. About 30 percent to 40 percent relative humidity is recommended during the winter. Relative humidity below 65 percent is suggested during the summer.
Power-using appliances, electronics and other household items account for a significant amount of the energy used in your home. A digital energy meter can be used throughout your home to determine how much electricity each appliance uses and how much vampire power is contributing to your monthly electricity costs. This can be an enlightening experience and a useful teaching tool to help be more aware of how you and your family are using energy. It may also help you find ways to save by switching off items when they're not needed. Meters are reasonably priced, and some public libraries even have them available to borrow.
If you have ever found yourself looking for light bulbs only to wonder which one to choose, a new phone application can help make the choice a little easier. The Light Bulb Finder gives you recommendations on what light bulbs to purchase based on what bulb you want to replace and where you will install it. It even shows you the lifetime savings you can expect by changing from an inefficient light bulb to a more efficient one. The Light Bulb Finder application is a free download for smart phones only. These are just a handful of tips you may not have known about to help you save energy. The OCC offers several more tips to consider or incorporate using energy more efficiently, no matter your budget.
By Anthony Rodriguez
During the past two years, natural gas customers who have chosen to continue purchasing their supply from Columbia Gas of Ohio have been billed at the default standard service offer (SSO) price. In 2012, these customers will see changes to the way the way their natural gas is priced.
Columbia will hold a competitive retail auction Feb. 14 to set a new standard choice offer for the monthly price of the natural gas. The standard choice offer (SCO) will replace the existing pricing method April 1. Representatives of the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) will be present at the auction to monitor the results.
Like the SSO, the SCO rate will be determined through a competitive auction. However, instead of wholesale companies bidding for portions of Columbia's natural gas supply as was the case with the SSO, retail natural gas suppliers will bid for portions of Columbia's customers. The winning bidders will have their company names included on customers' bills.
The low bid at the auction will be added to the monthly price of natural gas listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange. SCO customers will pay their local county sales tax instead of the gross receipts tax assessed to the SSO. This may result in a slight bill increase due to the tax difference.
It is important for consumers to understand that regardless of the supplier name appearing on their bill, they remain Columbia customers for delivery of the natural gas. Columbia will continue to deliver natural gas to homes, respond to emergencies, read meters, send monthly bills and respond to their customers' needs.
No action is necessary for consumers during the transition. Choice-eligible consumers billed at the SSO price will automatically receive the SCO. Customers on the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP Plus) or who are otherwise ineligible to participate in the Choice program will not see a change on their bills. The price is the same for all customers, regardless of the supplier name appearing on their bill and it is not necessary for customers to contact the supplier if they choose not to.
By Marty Berkowitz
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