2016 end of year review

December 22, 2016

Asim Z. Haque sworn in as PUCO chairman

In May, Asim Z. Haque was sworn in as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

As chairman, he is the head of the 310-person state agency charged with assuring all residential and business consumers access to adequate, safe and reliable utility services at fair prices, while facilitating an environment that provides competitive choices. Haque’s five-year term ends April 10, 2021.

Haque has served as a commissioner of the PUCO since 2013. Before serving as commissioner at the PUCO, Haque, an attorney, began his professional career at a general practice firm in Columbus where he represented a broad spectrum of clients in energy and utility matters.  He went on to serve as internal legal counsel for a global auto manufacturer, a role he held immediately prior to his first appointment to the Commission.

PUCO fines Columbia Gas of Ohio following home explosion

In January, the PUCO approved an agreement requiring Columbia Gas of Ohio to pay a fine of $200,000, take steps to improve its record keeping and enhance safety outreach throughout its service territory. The penalties are based upon the PUCO staff’s investigation of a March 2015 home explosion in Upper Arlington, Ohio that caused an estimated $9 million in property damage.

The PUCO concluded that Columbia did not follow its operating procedures to properly abandon an old service line, including removing or sealing the valve box and physically disconnecting the service line from its main line.

As part of the agreement, Columbia will enhance its record management by including GPS locations of curb boxes and other infrastructure in its internal records. Columbia will also increase its safety-related public awareness efforts directed towards customers, local officials, first responders and other utilities operating throughout its service territory. Columbia will hold an additional $200,000 in abeyance should it fail to fulfill its obligations under this agreement.

PUCO enforces underground damage prevention laws

Enforcement of Ohio’s underground protection laws began on Jan. 1, 2016. Commercial excavators, utility operators, designers and developers who fail to follow safe digging practices may be subject to penalties and fines.

A state law, passed in 2015, created the Underground Technical Committee (UTC) to increase public safety by ensuring that anyone excavating or operating underground facilities follows safe digging practices.

Since enforcement of the damage prevention law took effect in January 2016, the PUCO has registered 17,282 companies and received 27 valid complaints. So far, 16 of those cases have been decided with 11 still under investigation.

PUCO modifies FirstEnergy electric security plan

The PUCO established an eight-year electric security plan for FirstEnergy’s Ohio electric distribution utilities. FirstEnergy will continue to supply generation service through competitively sourced auctions. The utility will also commit to increased energy efficiency goals, plans to reduce carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 90 percent by 2045, and support grid modernization efforts.

The Commission ordered FirstEnergy’s Ohio utilities to establish PUCO staff’s recommended Distribution Modernization Rider (DMR). 

Rider DMR, set at $132.5 million per year (to be grossed up for taxes annually), will provide FirstEnergy with an infusion of capital so that it will be financially healthy enough to make future investments in grid modernization.  The Commission limited Rider DMR to three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension, subject to Commission approval. FirstEnergy requested that Rider DMR be granted in the amount of $558 million per year for eight years.

During the term of rider DMR, FirstEnergy will maintain its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and make sufficient progress in grid modernization initiatives ordered by the Commission, including its deployment of smart grid technology in the companies’ service territories.

PUCO issues orders on AEP Ohio electric security plan and PPA rider

The PUCO approved an agreement that will allow AEP Ohio to implement a power purchase agreement as it relates to the utility’s stake in the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC) over an eight year term.

The agreement also calls for AEP Ohio to develop 900 megawatts of utility-scale solar and wind electric generation facilities. AEP Ohio will also develop an enhanced grid modernization plan, a carbon reduction plan, and commit to retire, refuel or repower several of AEP’s existing coal-fire electric generation facilities by 2030.

PUCO adopts agreement to improve Just Energy marketing practices

In November, the PUCO adopted an agreement between PUCO staff and Just Energy to implement a compliance program to resolve alleged violations of the competitive retail electric service provider minimum standards and service requirements.

Just Energy will work with PUCO staff to ensure full compliance with PUCO rules and orders, and agrees to pay a forfeiture of $125,000 to the state of Ohio, with an additional $50,000 at the end of 12 months if it fails to complete the compliance program.

The objective of the 12-month compliance program is to avoid the potential for future consumer complaints resulting from Just Energy’s marketing, solicitation and customer enrollment practices.

PUCO charts path to protect submetering customers

In December, the PUCO set the framework to assert regulatory authority over submetering companies or similar entities that charge unreasonably high rates for the resale and redistribution of utility service.

The order enhances the test used by the PUCO to determine whether a submetering company or similar entity is acting as a public utility. If a submetering company or similar entity is charging more than a yet-to-be established percentage threshold above the bill of a similarly-situated default service customer, it will be presumed that the entity is acting as a public utility, thereby subject to PUCO jurisdiction.

The Commission will apply the test, on a case-by-case basis, in complaint cases brought forth by customers of submetering companies or similar entities.

PUCO Call Center saves Ohioans money

The PUCO employs professional customer service representatives who work to address issues customers have with their utility companies. The PUCO learns a great deal from customers who call in with questions and complaints. This information is used to ensure that companies engage in fair and reasonable practices. It also helps the PUCO to formulate rules and regulations.

Each year, the PUCO Call Center receives tens-of-thousands of calls from consumers that need assistance with utility concerns ranging from service disconnection to understanding their bill to mitigating disputes between the consumer and the utility. This year, the PUCO Call Center saved Ohio consumers more than $1.7 million. PUCO Call Center representatives are trained on the most up-to-date utility information and often times can address customer needs in only one phone call.

PUCO issues winter reconnect order for 2016–2017 winter heating season

The Winter Reconnect Order allows customers who have had their home heating service disconnected for nonpayment, or who have been threatened with disconnection, the opportunity to pay a maximum of $175, plus a reconnection fee to restore or maintain their utility service.

Ohioans can use the Winter Reconnect Order once per winter heating season. Customers who use the Winter Reconnect Order are required to make payment arrangements with their natural gas or electric company on the outstanding balance. During the 2015–2016 heating season, more than 246,000 customers utilized the Winter Reconnect Order.

PUCO works to keep Ohio’s highways safe through motor carrier safety inspections

With more than 4 million commercial motor vehicles registered to operate in Ohio, the work of PUCO motor carrier safety inspectors is important in order to keep Ohio’s highways safe. During 2016, the state of Ohio (PUCO and the Ohio State Highway Patrol) conducted 86,388 inspections on commercial motor vehicles.  The inspections resulted in 12 percent of the vehicles and 4 percent of the drivers inspected declared out-of-service.

PUCO awards 10 hazardous materials training grants

In 2016 the PUCO approved 10 hazardous materials training grants totaling $249,596. The grants will be used to train more than 1,700 public safety and emergency services professionals in Ohio.

The PUCO awards hazardous materials planning and training grants to local government subdivisions, educational institutions and state agencies in Ohio. Money for these grants comes from fines paid by hazardous material carriers and shippers. Individual grants are based upon applications to the PUCO and are awarded on a reimbursement basis.

The PUCO has regulatory authority to conduct safety audits and compliance reviews to evaluate the safety records, policies and procedures of motor carriers, including hazardous materials carriers operating in Ohio.

Rail safety upgrades

In 2016, the PUCO rail division was responsible for 98 rail crossing safety improvements. PUCO rail inspectors conducted 7,263 grade crossing inspections checking signage, vegetation and crossing conditions. Safety at railroad crossings has improved greatly in recent years as a result of these activities. The annual number of train-motor vehicle crashes in Ohio has decreased significantly, from 123 in 2001 to 72 in 2015.

PUCO engages Ohioans through outreach

PUCO staff regularly travel throughout the state to educate Ohioans on a variety of utility-related matters, from energy choice to motor carrier regulations to renewable energy, staff members provide their expertise to interested groups throughout the year. In 2016, the PUCO attended more than 550 outreach events and 20 local public hearings reaching thousands of Ohioans.