Ohio utility responds to irate consumers' issues

OHIO - Consumers would no longer have to participate in an Ohio utility's program that effectively forced them to buy overpriced energy-efficient light bulbs, under a revamped proposal the company presented to state regulators recently.

Akron-based FirstEnergy said it will make the program voluntary, but all details of that option have not been finalized.

Under the old, short-lived plan, the company charged unsuspecting customers $21.60 for two light bulbs, even as it cost only $3.50 to buy and distribute the lightbulbs, triggering consumer ire for having to pay extra to use less energy.

To make up the cost for lost electricity sales, FirstEnergy also planned to charge customers using an average amount of electricity 60 cents a month for three years.

But consumer backlash forced state regulators to pull the plug on the program earlier this month until a new deal could be worked out.

"Consumers are now very confused and angry," said Ohio Public Utilities Commissioner Ronda Hartman Fergus. "The program itself is a very good program. Some effort needs to be put to, 'How do we turn around that image with the public?'"

FirstEnergy and the Ohio Consumers' Counsel worked together to develop a distribution plan to get compact fluorescent lightbulbs to consumers. The Consumers' Counsel said it opposed the type of bulb that was being distributed, the cost of the bulbs, and the mandatory nature of the program.

But FirstEnergy, which said it had to move forward quickly to meet energy efficiency requirements, said consensus was reached on its original program as outlined in a September 16 letter to commissioners.

Commissioners did not hear an objection at that point from the Consumers' Counsel, which believed it had already made its concerns clear.

"This was not a collaborative process," Assistant Consumers' Counsel Greg Poulos said. "This was FirstEnergy doing what it wanted to do."

The commission instructed the parties to work out a new proposal that would make use of the millions of compact fluorescent lightbulbs that are now sitting in storage in northeast Ohio. There is no timeline for an agreement.

FirstEnergy proposed that consumers get the lightbulbs if they request them from their utility, and are offered them when they sign up for service, among other ways.

The voluntary program would take place over two years instead of the five weeks for which the company originally planned this fall.

Korkosz said the longer rollout also means the company can't meet 2009 energy-efficiency standards.

The bulbs, known by their twisty, tubular shape, use up to 75 percent less electricity than a traditional incandescent bulb. Customers can save up to $60 over the life of the bulbs, which last much longer than incandescent bulbs, the company said.

FirstEnergy operates the nation's fifth largest investor-owned electric system with 4.5 million customers in New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.


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