By Marc Kovac
The parent of Ohio Edison is now proposing voluntary participation in its plan to deliver CFL bulbs.
COLUMBUS — FirstEnergy told state energy regulators Wednesday that it is willing to distribute energy-efficient light bulbs only to customers who request them through a voucher or coupon program, rather than delivering compact fluorescents to all residences and some small businesses.
But that change would mean higher costs to customers and will take longer to implement, FirstEnergy legal counsel Art Korkosz told the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
“It is essential the commission recognize that the new costs of this program will be higher,” driven up by increased overhead associated with selective rather than general distribution to customers and by mail delivery, which is more expensive than direct delivery, he said.
And regardless of the ultimate approach on the program, PUCO should get ready for more public outcry over energy-efficiency programs and the costs involved as utilities attempt to meet energy-reduction mandates in coming years, Korkosz added.
“Such concerns and controversy will become even more pronounced and strident,” he said. “We cannot ignore the impacts on customer behavior and on the customer’s pocketbook arising from the statutory policy-choice mandating energy savings.”
FirstEnergy was one of five groups that participated in oral arguments on the controversial CFL program, which prompted an angry reaction from customers and calls from Gov. Ted Strickland and PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber to delay the distribution of 3.75 million bulbs.
Wednesday’s hearing lasted about two hours and included comments from FirstEnergy, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Industrial Energy Users of Ohio and Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy. Each was given about eight minutes to present views on the light-bulb program and energy efficiency mandates, then PUCO members asked questions.
FirstEnergy reiterated its position in the matter: That it listened to advocacy groups as part of a collaborative process and gained approval from PUCO for the CFL distribution.
“The relatively small but vocal negative reaction to media coverage about the CFL program was unanticipated, especially given the favorable public reaction similar direct distribution programs received elsewhere — notably Los Angeles, which implemented a program in early 2009 involving direct delivery of 2.4 million CFLs to residential customers,” Korkosz said.
Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander said her office voiced opposition to the program throughout the process and never signed off on the light-bulb program. It pushed for changes — lowering the costs of the light bulbs to $3.50 from $5.75 and ensuring the distribution was for this year alone.
Migden-Ostrander acknowledged that the counsel withdrew its opposition to the program in the end, but “We never endorsed the program. We never signed a document saying we were on board with the program.”
But commissioners voiced frustration that the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and other advocacy groups did not formalize that opposition, via filings with PUCO when the commission was making a final decision on the light bulb program.
“If that was the position of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel ... I needed to know,” said Commissioner Cheryl Roberto.
“It has to be in the record.”
PUCO approved the program believing the consumers’ counsel and others had signed off on it, added Commissioner Ronda Hartman Fergus.
“The worst part of it is that consumers are very confused and angry about a program ... a good program with benefits to consumers,” she said. “And now we’ve got them confused, they think it’s a bad program. I don’t know how we’re going to turn that around. ... I’m concerned about more than just how we distribute the light bulbs. I think some efforts need to be put in how do we turn around the public image through education.”
Schriber said PUCO is awaiting FirstEnergy’s decision on its plans for the light bulb program.
“I think its incumbent upon the company to present us with a plan, whether or not it’s done through a collaborative process or on their own initiative,” Schriber said. “At this point, we just need to get moving forward.”
Korkosz said his company is open to ideas.
“We’re certainly open to new approaches, and we’re trying to come up with them,” Korkosz said.