COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Consumers facing a $20 tab for a cup of coffee or a $58 charge for a pizza react with "That's crazy!" in two television and radio spots created by a group opposing the rate increases sought by FirstEnergy and AEP Ohio because their power plants are no longer cost effective.
The Alliance for Energy Choice, a group of independent power companies competing for Ohio customers, has launched an advertising campaign to alert consumers to the cases, which the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio could approve as early as March.
FirstEnergy and AEP Ohio have asked for increases in rates to subsidize the operations -- with healthy profit margins -- of their aging coal-fired power plants and the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. They argue the old plants cannot compete with power already available on the regional high-voltage grid, power produced by more efficient coal burners and new natural gas generators.
FirstEnergy, which came up with the idea first, has argued that natural gas will eventually become more expensive and keeping the old plants operating would add to the stability of the grid. The company has hinted broadly that without the special rate deal, which the opponents have labeled a "bailout," it might have to close Davis-Besse and its very large W.H. Sammis coal plant on the Ohio River.
The special charges could add as much as $6 billion to customer bills over the next eight years, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel believes, costing every FirstEnergy residential customer $800 and every AEP Ohio residential customer $700.
More galling to the opponents is that the PUCO staff, which was initially critical of the proposals, abruptly changed course after a series of closed-door meetings with each utility.
"FirstEnergy and AEP have been cutting backroom deals with the parties to the case for months, keeping Ohio consumers in the dark about these outrageous increases," said Todd Snitchler, former chairman of the PUCO, now lobbying for the Alliance.
"We are trying to educate the public about the issue, get them engaged and convince them to take action by telling the PUCO how they feel about it," he added.
The group's website, "Fight the Hikes" makes telling the five PUCO commissioners, state lawmakers and the governor's office easy, complete with a strongly worded letter and the appropriate email address.
The sophisticated format of the email allows a consumer who has more to say the ability to alter or delete the form letter, he added. And it allows a consumer to immediately post something on several social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
The 60-second TV ads are appearing in Cleveland, Youngstown, Columbus and Toledo markets indefinitely. The Alliance is also placing advertising on social media sites that will appear as sponsored links.
FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the ads "are an attempt to cloud an issue that is important to Ohio's energy future" and further noted that the power companies behind them are from out of state.
"These are not companies that have roots in Ohio or a long-term commitment to the people who live here. Unlike other electric suppliers that rely on one fuel source, FirstEnergy's plan provides an insurance policy for customers by keeping a diverse set of fuel sources available in Ohio to generate electricity," he said.
Using similar language, the company emailed letters to hundreds of city halls Friday pointing out that its opponents were "short-sighted" and repeating its argument that the proposal will save money in the long run.
"While we're well aware that there may be some minor rate increases in the initial years, we believe FirstEnergy's approach will stabilize generation costs over the long run and shield customers from much bigger rate increases down the road," the email said in part.
Chuck Keiper, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council, whose 200 member cities received the FirstEnergy email, immediately issued a counter email noting that the case has become a federal issue and summarizing NOPEC's continued opposition.
"As this case moves its way through the system at both the state and federal levels, there will undoubtedly be a great many attempts, from all sides, to sway public opinion and support. You should view these communications in that light.
FirstEnergy is also airing a kind of "good will" TV spot during Sunday's Super Bowl on WOIO-Channel 19 showcasing the renovation of Browder Field on the grounds o the old East Tech High School. The company worked with the City of Cleveland, the Browns and the NFL on the project to renovate and illuminate the youth football field.
The ad has nothing to do with the company's PUCO case but reinforces FirstEnergy's Northeast Ohio roots.
The Alliance media campaign comes a week after it released results of a statewide poll of voters showing the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the rate increases.
Several companies in the Alliance also last week filed objections to the special subsidies at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They argued that the FERC should forbid the deals before the PUCO acts because the subsidies undermine the competitive markets the federal agency has tried to foster.
This article has been updated to include FirstEnergy's response to the Alliance advertising campaign and NOPEC's response to FirstEnergy.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.
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