- FirstEnergy, American Electric Power, Duke Energy and Dayton Power & Light disconnected power to customers in Ohio nearly 200,000 times during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic
- Utilities decision to resume disconnections after a pause last year was enabled a failure by Governor Mike DeWine and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s to place a mandatory moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment during Ohio’s Covid-19 State of Emergency
- Utilities lobbied against a federal moratorium on disconnections as they resumed shut-offs
- The decision to resume disconnecting customers for nonpayment during the pandemic came the year after the same utilities secured ratepayer bailouts for coal and nuclear power plants via House Bill 6, the bill now at the center of a major federal corruption investigation
Ohio’s four largest electric utilities disconnected power to customers who couldn’t pay their bills nearly 200,000 times during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to documents filed by the utilities to their regulators in the past month.
FirstEnergy, which owns utilities operating throughout much of Ohio, announced in mid-March of 2020 that it would be “discontinuing power shutoffs for customers who are past due on their electric bills…” as part of the company’s commitment to “keeping the lights on through the coronavirus emergency.” American Electric Power (AEP), Duke Energy, and Dayton Power & Light (DP&L) also announced early on in the pandemic that they would temporarily suspend disconnections. By October of last year, as Covid-19 cases began to rise in Ohio, all four companies had resumed disconnections.
The utilities recently filed annual disconnection reports with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio showing how many times they disconnected customers for non-payment from June 2020 through May 2021.
The reports, along with earlier reported filed last year, show the number of customer disconnections reported by all of the utilities dropped to zero starting in April 2020, following the declaration of a State of Emergency by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine last March in response to Covid-19.
Unlike policies enacted by governors and utility regulators in different states, however, neither DeWine’s order nor an ensuing one from the Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO) mandated that utilities stop disconnecting customers for non-payment. Instead, the PUCO asked all utilities to “review their service disconnection policies … and identify areas where it may be prudent to suspend, for the duration of the emergency, otherwise applicable requirements that may impose a service continuity hardship on customers or create unnecessary risks of social contact.”
Orders issued by PUCO as early as May of 2020, when the worst of the pandemic was still ahead for Ohio, later directed utilities to develop plans for resuming disconnections.
“The Commission recognizes that, even in light of the emergency, service disconnections for non-payment cannot be suspended indefinitely,” PUCO said in one such order aimed at AEP.
So after voluntarily suspending disconnections from April 2020 through August, AEP and DP&L resumed disconnections for non-payment in September. FirstEnergy and Duke Energy resumed shutoffs in October.
PUCO approved of the utilities’ plans to resume disconnections last year, despite warnings from the state’s official consumer advocate that Covid-19 cases were rising in Ohio, and recommendations that the suspension of disconnections continue until the State of Emergency was over.
AEP, FirstEnergy, Duke Energy and DP&L together reported a total of 195,188 disconnections for nonpayment made since last September and October in their annual disconnection reports to PUCO:
- AEP’s utility, Ohio Power, reported over 124,157 disconnections between September 2020 and May 2021.
- FirstEnergy’s three Ohio utilities altogether reported 29,276 disconnections between October 2020 and May 2021, the last month covered by the disconnection reports. Ohio Edison reported 16,529 disconnections, followed by Toledo Edison with 8,064 and Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) with 4,683.
- Duke Energy Ohio reported making 28,028 disconnections between October 2020 and May 2021.
- DP&L, also known as AES Ohio, made 13,727 disconnections between September 2020 and May 2021.
|Dayton Power & Light
Accounting for the size of the utility, AEP shut off electricity for non-payment the most – it disconnected power once for every 11 residential customers on its system. Duke disconnected once for every 24 customers, DP&L disconnected once for every 34 customers, and FirstEnergy disconnected once for every 65 customers. (The utilities report only the number of disconnections, so some customers may have had been disconnected multiple times over the nine-month span.)
Public health data shows that the utilities resumed disconnections at the worst possible time. According to data collected by the New York Times, Ohio averaged between 900 and 1,300 new COVID-19 cases per day from July through September of 2020. In October, the case numbers began to spike sharply, reaching over 10,000 new daily cases by the middle of December.
Represented by the Edison Electric Institute, investor-owned utilities lobbied throughout the pandemic against efforts by Congress to apply a mandatory, nationwide moratorium on service disconnections that could have protected Ohio consumers. Documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute via a public records request revealed how AEP executives ordered lobbyists throughout its service territory to ask public utility commissioners to lobby Congress against a moratorium as early as April 2020.
Also last April, during the first full month when FirstEnergy suspended disconnections in Ohio, low-income advocates took to the streets in Cleveland to call on CEI to reconnect power to customers who had been disconnected before the pandemic. The disconnections report FirstEnergy filed last week indicates that the company largely ignored those concerns: CEI reconnected only twenty-three disconnected customers last April and only eight the following month.
Ohio’s utilities disconnected customers during the pandemic after securing ratepayer bailouts from House Bill 6, the bill at the center of a federal criminal case
FirstEnergy’s decision to resume disconnections last October was made with the approval of PUCO, whose mission is to serve Ohio consumers. At the time of the decision, FirstEnergy was already ensnared in a major $60 million bribery scandal. The scandal led to a series of terminations at the company that began last October, and included CEO Charles E. Jones and at least four top lobbyists, among others. The scandal also led to the resignation of PUCO chairman Samuel E. Randazzo in November.
Low-income and consumer advocates objected to FirstEnergy resuming disconnections at a time when the pandemic emergency and its economic impact were clearly far from over.
The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel pointed to the corruption scandal in a July 2020 motion that asked PUCO to order FirstEnergy to file a consumer protection plan and expressed major concerns about FirstEnergy’s plans to resume disconnections too soon:
At a time when there is, and understandably will continue to be, much attention to the crisis of alleged corruption involving House Bill 6 and the bailout of FirstEnergy’s former nuclear power plants, the crisis for many FirstEnergy consumers involving the coronavirus pandemic should also be front and center for solutions by government… We fear that FirstEnergy’s apparent intention for resumption of its disconnections is too soon for families already hurting from the health and financial crisis. In Ohio, food-insecurity has nearly doubled, June rent went unpaid by half a million people, poverty levels were already high – with minorities disproportionately represented in poverty, coronavirus cases are surging in places, and now loss of essential utility services through disconnection could make people’s plight more desperate.
The nuclear plants, now owned by Energy Harbor, were poised to receive a $1 billion bailout from Ohio ratepayers before that part of HB 6 was finally repealed this year, along with other provisions of the law that financially benefited FirstEnergy.
The other three major Ohio electric utilities also received massive public subsidies from other parts of HB 6 that remain in place. AEP, Duke Energy, and DP&L all own equity in two coal-fired power plants that received bailouts from the law. Ohio ratepayers have paid AEP, Duke Energy, and DP&L nearly $130 million in coal subsidies since January of 2020, according to a tracker found on the website of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.
FirstEnergy filed its plan seeking to resume disconnections in Ohio with PUCO on July 31, 2020, just one day after a federal grand jury indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and the other defendants in the corruption case. The indictment and earlier complaint in the criminal case made obvious FirstEnergy’s leading role in funding what federal prosecutors called a $60 million bribery scheme, though the company hasn’t been charged. When FirstEnergy filed its plan to resume disconnections, the company had already announced that it “received subpoenas in connection with the investigation surrounding House Bill 6.”
“Ohioans would benefit if FirstEnergy would seek to moderate the suffering of its consumers in the coronavirus crisis with the same vigor (but in a good way) that it used to seek nuclear power plant subsidies from consumers in House Bill 6,” the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Coalition on Homeless and Housing, and Ohio Poverty Law Center said in joint comments last August calling for FirstEnergy’s suspension of disconnections to continue until the State of Emergency was lifted.
AEP revealed last month that it received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement seeking “documents relating to the benefits to the company from the passage of H.B. 6 and documents relating to our financial processes and controls.”
Former PUCO Chairman Samuel Randazzo resigned after FirstEnergy first revealed a $4.3 million payment, more than enough money to cover the unpaid bills of the Ohio customers whose power was disconnected by FirstEnergy last October
When FirstEnergy filed its plan to resume disconnections last summer, the company’s lawyer pointed out that PUCO, then still led by Randazzo, had already determined that “even in light of the emergency, service disconnections for non-payment cannot be suspended indefinitely.” The plan filed by FirstEnergy also noted the fact that months before, PUCO had ordered utilities to develop plans to resume disconnections and other pre-Covid 19 operations.
As chairman, Randazzo’s name appeared at the top of the list of commissioners approving FirstEnergy’s plan to resume disconnections in a September 23, 2020 order. Randazzo resigned two months later, after the FBI raided his townhouse in Columbus, and FirstEnergy disclosed a previously secret $4.3 million dollar payment made in early 2019 to a consultant who soon became an Ohio utility regulator, a description that matched Randazzo. The company cited that payment as the reason for its firing of Jones and senior Vice President of External Affairs Michael Dowling one month earlier.
The state utility regulator acted “at the request or for the benefit” of FirstEnergy “as a consequence of receiving” the $4.3 million payment, according to FirstEnergy’s disclosure, which was buried deep in a filing with the SEC.
The disclosure did not specify how exactly the regulator acted for FirstEnergy’s benefit. Emails released by the Ohio House in response to a federal subpoena and Open Records Law requests revealed Randazzo provided input on H.B. 6 using an email address associated with his for-profit firm, the Sustainability Funding Alliance of Ohio, which had a murky financial relationship with FirstEnergy.
In February, FirstEnergy revealed during an earnings call that money collected from customers was “improperly” used toward the $4.3 million payment.
The money for that secret $4.3 million payment could have easily covered the just over $2.3 million owed by the more than 6,500 Ohio customers who had their power disconnected by FirstEnergy last October, as could the $7 million in total compensation that Jones earned at FirstEnergy last year before his termination.
“In present times, when you, good sir, are valiantly battling to save Ohioans from the surging attack of COVID-19, there is no room or time for me to be a distraction,” Randazzo wrote in his resignation letter to DeWine, who appointed Randazzo as PUCO’s chairman in spite of being warned about the former lobbyist’s financial relationship with FirstEnergy.
Three FirstEnergy internal lobbyists – Dowling, Ty Pine, and Joel Baily – who the company terminated in the wake of the H.B. 6 bribery scandal lobbied PUCO behind the scenes during the summer of 2020, when the utility’s plan to resume disconnections was still pending before the commission.
McKenzie Davis, an outside lobbyist for FirstEnergy, also lobbied DeWine on “covid response” for the utility, according to a lobbying report Davis filed for the May to August 2020 period. Davis served on the board of directors for Partners for Progress Inc., a group secretly funded by FirstEnergy that funneled money into dark money groups aligned with Householder and DeWine. Householder’s dark money group, Generation Now, pleaded guilty to racketeering in connection with the $60 million scheme to pass House Bill 6.
Top photo is a table from the annual disconnections report filed by Ohio Power, an AEP subsidiary, documenting that utility’s shutoffs by month.