Former PUCO chair texted he knew FirstEnergy charge was likely unlawful, but company would keep money anyway

Texts about the $456 million charge may further undermine public confidence in the PUCO. This article is provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join the free mailing lists for Eye on Ohio or the Energy News Network, as this helps provide more public service reporting. Newly disclosed texts from a former head of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio suggest he knew a grid modernization charge that cost ratepayers nearly half a billion dollars was “likely to be found illegal and could not be refunded.”

Former PUCO Chair Asim Haque and former FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling exchanged text messages on the same day the Supreme Court of Ohio held the charge unlawful. Challengers in the case had argued that the commission’s order imposing the charge basically had no strings attached to make FirstEnergy take any specific actions to modernize the grid.

A tale of two cities’ water bills: how one place was able to reduce mounting utility costs for low-income households and how Ohio may follow suit

If Kevina Chapolini-Renwrick couldn’t pay the $15,000 water bill, she’d lose her home. The South Philadelphia resident began to panic when she saw the city had tacked a notice on her door threatening her with legal action, back in the summer of 2021. Her husband had inherited the property from his parents in 2007, and with it, their unpaid water bill debt. Tears traced the retired social worker’s cheeks as she recalled the memories tied to the simple rowhouse with beige siding, snugly tucked between its neighbors on a peaceful side street in the Newbold neighborhood. Chapolini-Renwrick had lived in this neighborhood her entire life.

Sidebar: Why compare Cleveland and Philadelphia, and why does this matter?

Across the U.S., the cost of water and sewer has only gotten more expensive over the last several decades, with the average water bill increasing by 30% between 2012 and 2019, according to a utility bill index conducted by Bluefield Research. 

As of 2019, low-income households spent an average of almost 10% of their disposable income each month to pay for basic monthly water and sewer services, according to a study out of Texas A&M University. 

And in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, the pandemic and the cities’ high poverty rates mean there are thousands of people behind on their water bills. As of November 2021, almost 10% of all Cleveland Water customers – about 40,000 customers – were behind on their water and sewer bills by six months or more, a rate that’s far higher than non-pandemic years. More than 1 in 4 Cleveland Water customers were behind on at least one bill that month, and in Philadelphia, nearly a third of customers were at least one bill behind in March 2021. Despite a significant difference in population size, the city of Cleveland isn’t so different from Philadelphia. The water systems that serve both cities are municipality-owned and serve a wide geographic area, with the Cleveland Water Department servicing about 440,000 accounts and the Philadelphia Water Department servicing almost 500,000.

Dark money helped Ohio utilities subsidize coal plants, delaying climate action at ratepayers’ expense

The biggest corruption scandal in Ohio’s history happened right under people’s noses, and much of the law at its center remains on the books. This story originated from the Energy News Network and Eye on Ohio and is part of ‘Climate & Democracy,’ a series from the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now. It has been three years since Ohio lawmakers first introduced the power plant bailout legislation that is now at the heart of the largest corruption case in state history. Since House Bill 6 passed in 2019, an FBI investigation has revealed a $60 million bribery scheme, leading to extensive admissions by FirstEnergy — a utility company central to the scandal — and guilty pleas from three defendants in a federal criminal case. 

Beyond that, though, accountability has been slow to come, and HB 6, which also gutted the state’s clean energy standards, remains on the books. Just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report notes how vested interests have blocked progress on climate change mitigation, the HB 6 scandal shows how utility, fossil fuel and nuclear interests have framed Ohio energy policy, even when that policy conflicts with voter preferences on renewable energy.

Ohioans struggle to get help with utility bills

Federal programs exist, but how easy are they to access? Rashidah Abdulhaqq worries her electricity and heat will be shut off. 

These are vital services during normal times, but especially during the winter, and especially when she has a portable oxygen tank she carts around to keep herself alive. Flanked by several windows wrapped in plastic to better insulate her drafty Cleveland home, Abdulhaqq said she’s been trying for almost three months to get an application in for several programs to help her with her utility bills. Struggling with bills? Check out this guide created to help by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative and Black Girl Media.

Former Ohio regulator linked to $4 million payoff directed agency to limit response to FirstEnergy corruption

Former PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo shaped agency responses to HB 6 scandal: ‘Proactive’ show-cause action followed only after bad publicity. Randazzo and others closely tracked legislative actions as well. 

This article is provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join the free mailing lists for Eye on Ohio or the Energy News Network, as this helps provide more public service reporting. Newly produced documents show that Sam Randazzo, former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, came up with the idea to let FirstEnergy show it didn’t use ratepayer money for House Bill 6, the nuclear and coal bailout law at the heart of Ohio’s largest corruption case. The move was far short of a full investigation that consumer advocates have called for.