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Consumer Watchdog Calls For A Shake-Up At Ohio's Utility Commission

power lines

The state's legal representative for Ohio's residential utility consumers said recent decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court underline the need for changes at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Over the course of the last three years, the Ohio Supreme Court has issued three rulings that determined the PUCO erred in a decision involving FirstEnergy.

The office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC), a plaintiff in two of those court challenges, said PUCO made decisions that benefited FirstEnergy over consumers.

That's why the OCC, which argues on behalf of state consumers in utility-related issues, said the PUCO should have at least one commissioner on the panel who represents ratepayers.

"We've been warning that the PUCO is too cozy with the utilities that it regulates. So reform of the PUCO is needed to achieve the missing balance with consumers," said J.P. Blackwood, acting manager for the OCC public affairs department.

In 2019, the court ordered that the PUCO immediately remove FirstEnergy's distribution modernization rider (DMR) from its rate plan for consumers. The ruling said the PUCO's decision to allow for the DMR was unlawful and the conditions placed on the rider were not sufficient enough to protect ratepayers.

"Utility companies can be expected to respond to financial motivations, but not if the commission awards them money up-front with no meaningful conditions attached," Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote in the 2019 decision.

Then in 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the PUCO did not cite any language from law to justify its related to FirstEnergy's "significantly excessive earnings test," also known as SEET.

This test determines if a utility company charged customers too much on electric bills. If the test finds "significantly excessive earnings" then customers could get a refund. The PUCO decided not to include revenue from the distribution modernization rider in the SEET.

The latest ruling happened Thursday, when the Ohio Supreme Court found that the PUCO did not do enough to make sure FirstEnergy would not violate corporate separation policies when it created an affiliate that advised people on which electric company to choose.

Meanwhile, FirstEnergy has admitted to bribing the last PUCO chair with $4 million for favorable treatment.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.