Ohio gas rate cases threaten efficiency programs for low-income families



The state’s consumer advocate says the COVID-19 pandemic justifies the diversion of funds to bill payment programs.

The Ohio Consumer Advocate is asking state regulators to divert funding for two utility energy efficiency programs to help with bill payments due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Ohio Office of the Consumer Lawyer made the point in the pending natural gas utility cases Columbia Gas and Vectren Energy, who are looking to extend their weatherization programs for low-income people by two years.

While most work has been put on hold due to the pandemic, supporters of the programs say the move would be shortsighted, potentially cost Ohio hundreds of jobs, and rob families of a chance to cut back. energy bills.

“Low-income households often have to choose between keeping their homes cool and comfortable temperatures or purchasing basic necessities like food and medicine,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio director of energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Efficiency can help reduce the burden of energy costs. “

Families who benefit from Ohio utility weather protection programs are typically among the poorest in the state, said Dave Rinebolt, executive director and legal counsel for Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, which manages the programs. .

“Our typical household is a family of three with an elderly or disabled person in the house, as they are priority customers for us,” said Rinebolt. “And their income is generally less than 120% of the poverty line. Eligibility is technically up to twice the poverty level, but most clients are well below this threshold.

About 30% of the work is also done in multi-family dwellings. “This is where you get the poorest of the poor,” Rinebolt said. And while the energy savings in a small apartment are usually less, “we usually save between one and two months in electricity bills. And it is not negligible. “

“Efficiency doesn’t just save energy. It can also help with other health and comfort issues, ”Sawmiller said. Poorly sealed homes let in moisture, for example, which can lead to mold. This in turn can trigger health problems like asthma, “which, as we have recently seen, makes these already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable to respiratory disease.”

“It’s an important program that they have, and they have to keep it,” said a woman who asked that her name not be released for confidentiality reasons. Initially, a leaky roof prevented an accurate energy audit of the house in the Five Oaks neighborhood of Dayton where she lives with her husband, a partially disabled veteran. “They put a new roof on the house,” which the family would not have otherwise been able to afford.

After the energy audit, it turned out that the full weatherization of the first floor was not practical because the house is over 100 years old. The workers were, however, able to install insulation in the attic. The program also provided energy efficient lighting.

“They have done everything they can to reduce the energy costs in our house,” she said. “The program is a great program, and I highly recommend it. “

Ohio Consumers Council spokesperson JP Blackwood said in an emailed statement that the idea of ​​”reallocating” energy efficiency program funds is appropriate “given the urgency of the coronavirus and its impact on consumer finances “. With the exception of emergencies, most work on the programs is currently on hold due to emergency orders from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. However, added Blackwood, the agency would recommend embezzling the funds “even under the usual circumstances.”

“Ohioans should not be forced to subsidize gas energy efficiency programs run by utilities, for reasons such as they can buy energy efficiency measures at the store if they wish,” said Blackwood. “And given that natural gas prices are at historically low levels, energy efficiency measures are not that effective in saving money for natural gas consumers.”

The OCC also proposed to eliminate all energy efficiency programs for non-low income customers, on the grounds that Bill 6 gutted the energy efficiency standard in 2019.

“Myopic” sandbags?

“In fact, the price of gas doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, because we’re always taking profitable action,” Rinebolt said. On the contrary, “when gas prices are low, this is the time to invest in efficiency”.

“Energy efficiency remains the cheapest and cleanest option for Ohioans,” said attorney Rob Kelter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who is familiar with the Columbia Gas case. “We can find other ways to help customers today, while also moving forward with programs that improve customer comfort, lower their bills, and help Ohioans breathe more air. pure. “

“When you look at the minimal cost of energy efficiency programs and their long-term benefits that help customers save on their bills over a period of years, we think OCC’s position is shortsighted,” he said. Kelter said.

The network of nonprofits that make up Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy also administer bill payment assistance programs, Rinebolt said. Ohio will already secure additional funding for bill payment assistance as part of a federal stimulus bill passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Further relief could also come from other bills, he added.

In contrast, getting rid of energy efficiency programs from low-income utilities would not only reduce the ability of low-income families to continuously reduce their bills, but would also cost around 500 jobs, Rinebolt said. The loss of these skilled workers would be a big blow to the organization.

The proposal to prematurely end all energy efficiency programs for gas companies could also have broader impacts for Ohio’s energy efficiency sector, according to Sawmiller. Before the pandemic hit, Ohio’s energy efficiency sector supported more than 80,000 jobs, he noted. “It is increasingly crucial to preserve these employment opportunities in this time of increasing unemployment,” he said. “Cutting funding – and therefore the ability to work – will only make it harder for Ohioans to recover from this horrific pandemic. “

And after?

The Ohio Consumers Council’s proposals in the affairs of the two gas companies may also raise legal issues that have yet to be informed by opponents.

“Ohio has a long and rich history of low income programs,” said Rinebolt. Energy saving programs continue to be authorized under Ohio Law even after HB 6, he noted.

On April 9, his organization and Vectren Energy jointly asked the Ohio Utilities Commission to either reverse the OCC’s proposals in this case or allow other parties to file responses. In their view, the OCC’s proposals are “textbook sandbag” and procedurally inappropriate.

Other parties have yet to respond to the Columbia Gas proposal, which is at an early stage in the disclosure process.

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