By Jake Zuckerman, Ohio Capital Journal
Ohio utility companies have asked state regulators for permission to raise home gas, electric and water costs on more than 2.75 million Ohio customers.
Those charges could be spread between customers of Columbia Gas, AES Ohio, Duke Energy, and Aqua Ohio. The utilities, all investor-owned, are collectively asking for another $400 million in annual charges.
Any base rate increases require the approval of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which is headed by five commissioners chosen by the governor for five-year terms. The PUCO’s staff review the companies’ requests and pose recommendations to the commissioners, who decide what the utilities can ultimately charge their customers.
The utilities’ requests come in an inflationary period — consumer prices are up 8.6% over the year ending May 2022 and unleaded gas costs just below $5 per gallon. Last week, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve said a recession is a possibility.
“It is bad timing for utilities to be seeking rate increases at the PUCO, with consumers already hurting from soaring energy prices and inflation,” said Bruce Weston, executive director of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, a state agency that represents residential ratepayers in PUCO cases.
“Ohio should lead with its heart and keep Ohioans connected to their utility services.”
They also come at a turbulent time for the commission. Its former chairman resigned in 2020 after FBI agents were seen raiding his home. Last summer, the utility FirstEnergy Corp. alleged in court documents that it paid him a $4.3 million bribe for regulatory favors. He has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged. The U.S. Department of Justice twice subpoenaed the PUCO last year for records related to the case.
Two commissioners previously worked for the companies they now regulate. Commissioner Dan Conway previously represented American Electric Power as an attorney in private practice. Commissioner Lawrence Friedeman has worked for IGS Energy, Vectren Energy Delivery of Ohio, Columbia Gas Services, and the Ohio Gas Association.
Thus far, the PUCO staff has recommended granting slimmed-down versions of rate hike requests from Columbia Gas, Duke and Aqua Ohio. The AES case awaits a key ruling from a PUCO judge. None of the four has reached a final decision.