AEP Ohio disconnections questioned

AEP Ohio is disconnecting customers for nonpayment at rates far higher than the state’s other big electric utilities, according to consumer groups asking state regulators to investigate shutoffs by the power company.

The groups also are asking the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to order the power company to suspend shutoffs during the investigation.

“People need utility services to live,” said the filing with the PUCO by the groups, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Ohio Poverty Law Center and Pro Seniors.

In a filing on Friday, the PUCO staff recommended that the commissioners deny the requests and that it continue to be allowed to monitor disconnections and serve utility customers individually.

“Staff is concerned that suspending disconnections will not reduce customers’ ultimate responsibility to pay for their utility service,” the filing said. “Customers’ service will stay on, but the amount they owe the utility companies will continue to grow.”

When there was a moratorium on disconnections in 2020 because of the pandemic, the PUCO’s call center had a big decrease in customer contacts regarding disconnections.

Without the possibility of disconnection, customers often won’t reach out for assistance in paying their utility bills. If they contact the PUCO, staff can provide them with information on getting assistance to pay their overdue bills, according to the filing.

AEP disconnected 124,157 customers for the year that ended May 31, 64% of all disconnections by the state’s electric companies for the period, according to the filing. The period includes three months where disconnections were blocked by the state because of the pandemic.

By comparison, each of the state’s other big electric utilities, First Energy, Duke Energy and DP&L, shut off fewer than 30,000 customers during the period.

AEP had 95 disconnections per 1,000 customers while Duke Energy, the next closest, had 42.

AEP Ohio has 1.5 million customers, covering a large swath of the state. The data don’t show where the disconnections are taking place.

“AEP’s disconnections can have a disparate impact on at-risk and low-income consumers despite state policy protecting these consumers,” the filing said.

AEP, with PUCO approval, resumed shutoffs last September.

The groups said the shutoffs are hurting Ohio’s most vulnerable people — senior citizens, the poor, minorities and others most at risk from the coronavirus.

“We fear for already-hurting Ohio families if utilities are allowed to continue disconnections, especially next winter,” said Bruce Weston, Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

“The very short moratorium on utility disconnection was insufficient to protect seniors, who need electric service for medical equipment and gas service for heat,” said Mike Walters, the attorney for Pro Seniors.

AEP Ohio says it is reviewing the filing and plans to respond.

“AEP Ohio stopped disconnecting customers for nonpayment through the height of the pandemic, as directed by the PUCO. We immediately increased communications efforts through various channels to encourage customers who were experiencing financial hardship to reach out to us for payment assistance programs,” the company said.

“We offered flexible payment plans and worked with customers to help them stay connected. We also have been working with community action agencies to inform their clients of available options. These efforts are ongoing.”

AEP Ohio says its Neighbor to Neighbor fund has helped more than 3,300 customers by providing more than $860,000 in assistance.

The filing also asks the PUCO to investigate AEP’s use of smart meters to disconnect consumers. The groups say because of smart meters, AEP was able to get a waiver from the state that required utilities to give in-person notices at Ohioans’ homes prior to service disconnections.

Smart meters allow utilities to, among other things, disconnect service remotely along with detecting outages. On the other side, it allows service to be reconnected quickly.

From 2016-21, AEP disconnected an average of 124,284 customers per year, up 35.7% from the prior five-year average, according to the filing. Meanwhile, disconnections by other electric utilities in Ohio have gone down.

The fact that AEP disconnections for its customers are up compared with other utilities is “apparently because AEP Ohio uses its smart meters against them,” the filing said. That is disputed by at least one industry watcher.

In 2015, Duke was attacked for its disconnection policies that, at the time, were the highest among the state and nearly twice as high as the rate for AEP Ohio. Like with AEP, the Office of the Consumers’ Counsel questioned whether smart meters were a factor.

Why some utilities disconnect more consumers than others isn’t clear, said Michael Thomas, founder and head of research at Carbon Switch, a company that does home energy reviews and guides. Thomas wrote last year about the threat consumers were facing from the lifting of state moratoriums on electricity shutoffs.

“What I can tell you is that Ohio isn’t alone in this variance. In nearly every state, I was able to find data on (about 20), I found large variations between shutoff rates,” he said in an email. “I also found large variations between states. I didn’t find any correlation between other demographic data. In other words, I found no answers in the data.”

Thomas did say that smart meters do make it easier for utilities to shut off service to customers.

“But given the adoption of smart meters at most large-scale utilities, it’s unlikely this is the full story even if it’s a contributing factor,” he said.

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AEP Ohio is disconnecting customers for nonpayment at rates far higher than the state’s other big electric utilities, according to consumer groups asking state regulators to investigate shutoffs. Ohio is disconnecting customers for nonpayment at rates far higher than the state’s other big electric utilities, according to consumer groups asking state regulators to investigate shutoffs. Tribune News Service
Consumer groups call for PUCO investigation

By Mark Williams

The Columbus Dispatch