Ohio Utility Ships Customers Energy-Efficient Bulbs, Plus a Huge Bill

deadlight-bulbCall it greening run amok. Or, more likely, poor planning combined with petty penny pinching by a large corporation. FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, sent two $3.50 energy-saving compact florescent light-bulbs (CFLs) to customers, and then charged them $21 for the bulbs — whether they wanted them or not.

According to news reports, the remaining $14 was to pay the utility back for the electricity customers would not be using because they had the new bulbs. But if customers don’t use the bulbs, or if they already have their own, they still have to pay the fee.

The scam program, which was set to begin October 12 but has been “postponed,” was FirstEnergy’s response to the state’s new energy law, which requires investor-owned electric utilities to reduce consumption by 22.2 percent by 2025. The bulb distribution was supposed to help FirstEnergy’s customers meet the new requirements.

FirstEnergy, which was a little startled by the outcry, pointed out that customers would save $60 over the life of the bulb. It was unclear if this figure was before or after the $21 fee.

Too Many Mandates, Too Few Lightbulbs?

This isn’t the first such maneuver by a utility: about two years ago, Allegheny Power sent energy-efficient bulbs to its 220,000 Maryland customers without letting them know they would be footing the bill, according to ONNtv.

Bulb brohahas may become more frequent, as states require utilities to reduce consumption and/or use more renewable energy sources, which are typically more expensive. Critics have argued that such sweeping initiatives will raise costs and/or lower profits for utilities, who will then turn to their customers to make up the difference — some more gracefully than others.

But if demand is reduced, should utilities really be repaid for the lost profits? Or should reduced consumption be seen as merely the cost of doing business in a more energy-conscious country? The issue is akin to Saudi Arabia’s demand that it be repaid for lost revenues, should oil consumption drop. In this country it’s called decoupling, and it’s a hotly debated topic.

FirstEnergy, headquartered in Akron, OH, is the nation’s fifth largest investor-owned electric system with 4.5 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If the company sounds familiar, it might be because FirstEnergy was fingered in a massive East coast blackout in 2003. Failure by the company to adequately maintain transmission lines led to a cascade of outages that left millions without power for days.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.