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PUCO rejects changes to program that would ease reconnection costs during the cold months

Electric meter on a house
Creative Commons

The falling temperatures bring higher heating bills, and consumer advocates asked for changes to a program meant to keep homes warm even when people can’t pay. But the Ohio Public Utilities Commission denied most of those requests in their meeting Wednesday.

But, the PUCO did order a name change for the program, formerly known as the Winter Reconnect Order. It will now be known as the Special Reconnect Order (SRO), to reflect its reach across seasons.

The program sets special circumstances that heat-providing utility companies have to meet to reconnect people’s services, even when they are behind on their bills, between mid-October and mid-April.

Unpaid balances can add up quickly during Ohio’s cold winters. But customers using the SRO only have to pay a flat rate of $175, and a $36 reconnection charge, to get their heat turned back on, even if their balance is higher than that. About 200,000 customers a year use the program, which is open to all Ohioans.

Andrew Tinkham with the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, said they wanted the PUCO to make a number of changes that would help low-income families stay safe during the winter, like suspending electric and gas utility disconnections during the upcoming winter and making it easier to apply for aid.

The consumers’ counsel said they believed the changes are necessary this winter to help low-income customers battle what they call “soaring” energy prices, the “highest inflation in 40 years” and a “resurging pandemic.”

But, that didn’t happen.

The commission approved one measure the OCC proposed. Utility customers can now use the program once per utility, for electric or natural gas, instead of just once in a season.

But, they rejected their other proposed changes, including requests for customers to get more time between disconnection notices and the actual disconnection. And, their request to require the companies to collect the ZIP codes where the disconnected customer lives. Advocates wanted the data to identify neighborhoods that need targeted support.

Tinkham said that information would be vital to getting people the resources they need.

“The PUCO should require the utilities to provide more data about their disconnections, including demographic data for assuring energy justice for Ohioans in need,” he said.

The data would help identify which neighborhoods see the most disconnections.

The utility companies were against the changes, they said the PUCO declined some of these requests in the past, there wouldn’t be time to implement some of these other changes and that current reporting requirements were adequate without the addition of ZIP codes.

The commission also agreed with utility companies’ arguments, that suspending disconnections during winter isn’t sustainable and would result in bigger bills for those customers and lead to increased costs for all other utility customers in the long run.

The commission did rule that the advocates could raise the issues again in future proceedings that were more suitable for implementing these types of changes.

The Special Reconnect Order program starts October 17 under the rules set by the commission this week.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.