Natural gas meter with pipe on wall. Getty Images.
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
Many Ohioans are seeing utility bill increases despite using less energy, prompting questions and concerns about their costs. A new Democratic bill seeks to give them answers.
Inflation has hit everyone’s pockets, but Mike Cristino said getting his utility bill is like playing roulette.
“I have to budget my income and I can’t really do that, I don’t know what it’s going to be every month,” Cristino, a single dad in Parma, said. “It just keeps going up and my paycheck doesn’t go up, so I have to find money somewhere else.”
He finds that money by working two jobs. In between his two shifts, he spoke to OCJ/WEWS about his struggles and sent over his bills.
His Columbia Gas bills have increased from $80 last February to close to $190 now, soaring about 140%. Even from January to February, his bill increased by $30, despite using 12 units less of energy.
“Why is it still going up?” he asked.
He lives by himself half of the time, so there is no reason his costs should be steadily increasing for months now without doing anything majorly different, he argued. He understands that the winter has price increases, but this isn’t just a winter-specific issue, he said.
And his bills don’t provide any reasoning.
“When you’re looking at your bill… it doesn’t really do much,” he sighed.
State Rep. Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood) said this is unacceptable. He is sponsoring House Bill 41, which would require utility bills to provide an itemized list of each charge and what it’s for.
“It’s making sure that consumers are knowing what they pay for and when they decide to choose their electric provider, what they’re getting,” Skindell said.
He and 11 other Democrats want the following to be included in bills from gas, natural gas, waterworks or electric light companies for residential customers:
- utility distribution costs
- generation costs
- transmission costs
- supply costs
- all riders and charges that are separate from the customer’s utility distribution, generation, transmission or supply costs
- all taxes and government fees
“The Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission places all kinds of riders, all these additional charges,” the lawmaker said. “It’d be nice that Northeast Ohioans know that they’re paying for a dirty coal power plant that they don’t even get electricity for.”
It would be negligent to not mention the ginormous public corruption trial occurring in the state in an article about energy costs.
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder is accused of accepting a nearly $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation, House Bill 6, that would provide a $1.3 billion bailout to FirstEnergy and other utility companies. FirstEnergy already confessed to bribing Householder to help its failing corporation.
“I think in light of all the testimony coming out in the House Bill 6 trial and showing the dealmaking and what’s goes on… I think there’ll be a difference of attitude in the General Assembly,” Skindell said, referencing that the legislation only received one hearing last G.A.
Every day, Ohioans fund two of Ohio Valley Electric Corporation’s (OVEC) coal plants. These subsidies are about $150 million per year, according to a study commissioned by the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association.
Cristino, however, is not funding OVEC plants through his gas bills. Columbia Gas of Ohio has no relation to H.B. 6, according to the company, since the legislation’s scope was centered around electric utilities.
Energy companies react to bill
OCJ/WEWS reached out to Columbia Gas, First Energy, Nationwide Energy Partners (NEP), American Electric Power (AEP) and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), but none would make a comment on the legislation at this time.
Case Western Reserve University corporate law professor Anat Alon-Beck explained there are a few reasons why corporations wouldn’t want this, including having to pay additional administrative costs. The larger reason may be that they are worried about competition.
“One party has more information than the other, and that means they can take advantage of that information,” Alon-Beck said. “Once we disclose information, people can make different types of decisions.”
Columbia Gas did address why Cristino may be seeing increases, saying there have “been fluctuations over the last year in the cost of natural gas due to things that are outside of Columbia’s control,” neglecting to address their riders.
The company’s spokesperson, Eric Hardgrove, went on to explain the two primary components of natural gas bills — cost of the gas itself and cost of delivery.
“For the cost of natural gas itself – which is largely dependent upon the market prices – Columbia does not control these costs; they are passed directly through to customers with no markup by Columbia,” the Hardgrove continued.
“Columbia wants customers to know they have options and encourage participation in the Choice program, where customers can choose to shop in the competitive marketplace for the natural gas commodity that is delivered to their homes by Columbia,” the spokesperson added.
PUCO agreed to a measure in January that could increase fixed monthly charges to 1.4 million Ohio natural gas customers by more than 50% over the next five years. This comes after Columbia Gas asked to start charging customers $80 a month, according to WEWS Cleveland’s partner Ohio Capital Journal.
After bargaining down, this decision means that after five years, gas customers might be paying as much as $58 a month simply to have gas service. The charge doesn’t include the cost of gas itself, the price of which also has increased sharply in recent years.
Regardless of the base rate, Cristino wants some more transparency.
“I think they would help everybody just to see — this is what I’m being charged for,” he said.
As consumers watch their utility bills, this House bill will likely be heard within the coming months.
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