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Sharpening the Focus on Utilities

Volunteer watchdogs needed to voice customers' concerns

Following severe cuts at the state agency that serves as the official representative for residential utility customers, AARP AARP Ohio is recruiting a cadre of volunteers to amplify the voices of consumers.

The cutback at the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) "has placed much more responsibility on individual consumers to weigh in," said Ron Bridges, AARP Ohio director of government affairs.

See also: Your home energy consumer rights.

There are many issues on the horizon that need strong consumer representation, he said, including the use of "smart meters" and the development of the "smart grid."

Advocates of the new technology point to the benefits of smart meters and the smart grid. But AARP Ohio wants to be sure that the financial effect on residential consumers is taken into account.

Smart meters monitor power usage around the clock and provide that information to the utility and to customers.

Information about system-wide power usage enables utilities to establish rate plans that charge lower prices during the night when overall use is generally less. With the information, consumers can manage electricity usage — by setting a dishwasher's timer to begin the cycle in the middle of the night, for instance.

But Bridges said there's a downside: Higher daytime rates penalize retirees and others who are home during the day. For them, the use of medical equipment and air conditioning during the hottest part of the day can't be put off until the night's cheaper rates.

The smart grid uses technology — rather than people — to read meters, look for broken equipment and measure voltage.

The smart grid is designed to improve efficiency and reliability in the delivery of power to homes, schools and businesses. But the statewide cost nears $750 million for three investor-owned utilities in Ohio that serve large population areas of the state. A fourth investor-owned utility does not have a smart grid program.

American Electric Power, Duke Energy and FirstEnergy received federal grants to underwrite part of the grid expense, but most of the $736 million price tag could be paid by consumers.

"At the end of the day," Bridges said, "residential customers will be footing the bill."

He said AARP Ohio wants to make sure that the costs passed along to consumers are accurate and fair.

AARP Ohio is recruiting members from across the state to become utility advocates as smart grid and smart meter issues arise.

Bridges said there are other utility issues that need to be monitored as well. The watchdogs will stay informed about developments in their communities, testify at Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) hearings, keep other consumers informed and, if necessary, lobby the legislature, he said.

The utility advocates are especially important now, Bridges said. The current two-year state budget sliced OCC funding by more than a third in the first year alone, forcing staff and service reductions.

Many tasks for advocates

Bridges is enlisting advocates from across the state because different regions are served by different utilities and have different issues.

In Columbus, advocates could attend weekly PUCO sessions and meetings of the legislature's utility committees. Elsewhere, advocates could meet with state representatives or appear before city or county commissions to discuss affordable and reliable utility service.

Some AARP Ohio volunteers have already spoken up.

Joseph Funai, 71, a retired public school business manager from Hanoverton in northeast Ohio, opposed the OCC budget cuts in letters to the editor published in two newspapers.

"We need to keep utility rates affordable," he wrote. "The work of the [OCC] is critical — especially in these hard economic times."

To become an AARP Ohio utility advocate, call 1-866-389-5653 toll-free, email or register online to join the Ohio Uitility Watchdog Team.

Vince McKelvey is a writer living in New Lebanon, Ohio.

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