Sierra Club’s billboards target FirstEnergy Corp.

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

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A Sierra Club billboard along Route 8 north near the University of Akron, displays the message, First Energy: First at Wasting Energy. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

The Sierra Club is taking to the streets — that is, on billboards in Akron and Columbus — with a public message criticizing Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.

Late last week, three billboards went up around downtown Akron and two in Columbus with the Sierra Club saying FirstEnergy is “failing to protect customers from huge energy cost increases and dangerous pollution by reducing energy waste.”

The billboards feature smokestacks and say “FirstEnergy: First at Wasting Energy. Tell the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to Protect Ohio Consumers” and encourages people to go online at www.ohioforcleanenergy.org to read more details.

FirstEnergy spokesman Doug Colafella said the company is being unfairly targeted.

“It would be one thing if we weren’t meeting the goals,” Colafella said.

He said FirstEnergy has a three-year program for energy efficiency that was approved by the PUCO and is on track to successfully meet Ohio’s reduction targets through offerings to residential, commercial and industrial customers.

In the Akron area, there are three billboards: on the digital sign near the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium for drivers going north on state Route 8; on Howard Street north of Cuyahoga Street, and downtown on Bowery Street near Center Street near the old YMCA building and a few blocks away from FirstEnergy’s headquarters on South Main Street.

In Columbus, two billboards are near the PUCO offices and near Ohio State University on state Route 315.

The Sierra Club and consumer advocate groups object to FirstEnergy’s current proposal in front of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on how it will meet state-mandated energy-efficiency savings. The club says the parent of Ohio Edison is not offering good enough programs to encourage people to reduce energy and accuses FirstEnergy of not taking actions that could save customers money over time.

Decision in December

The PUCO is expected to make a decision on the energy-efficiency portfolio case in December before the new three-year plan must go into effect in 2013. A PUCO spokesman declined to comment regarding the billboards, saying it was an active case in front of the commission.

In a news release, Dan Sawmiller, senior representative for what is called Ohio’s Beyond Coal campaign, said: “Saving energy saves money. While other Ohio utilities have excelled with the energy-efficiency program options that they offer to customers, FirstEnergy is padding its pockets by misusing their customers’ energy-efficiency savings. Reducing energy waste through energy-efficiency programs is the cleanest and cheapest way to meet Ohio’s energy needs and to provide affordable electricity and good jobs to Ohioans.”

Sierra Club spokeswoman Claire Orphan said the organization does not disclose how much it spent on the ads, but “this buy is aggressive and the largest done for Ohio’s Beyond Coal campaign. We hope that FirstEnergy and the Public Utilities Commission notice, and see how important this is to Ohio.” Sawmiller said the funding came from the national Sierra Club.

Colafella of FirstEnergy said: “We don’t agree with Sierra Club’s contentions. We just announced this year that we’re retiring a number of plants that aren’t going to be in compliance with new regulations. There are a number of positive steps we’re taking. We think it’s unfair criticism and our customers are enjoying some of the most attractive electric prices we’ve seen in decades. We’re doing the best we can to keep prices in check.”

In its news release, the Sierra Club said it is joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is in a coalition in its objections to FirstEnergy’s energy-efficiency case.

“FirstEnergy’s greed is boundless,” said Dylan Sullivan of the NRDC. “Other Ohio utilities see energy efficiency as an opportunity to help their customers manage energy use. FirstEnergy just wants you to use more of their dirty product.”

FirstEnergy responds

Colafella said the Sierra Club “spun” its information to show FirstEnergy’s energy-efficiency savings below other utilities without explaining that other utilities, such as AEP, started its programs earlier.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the state’s residential utility advocate, has also objected to FirstEnergy’s energy-efficiency portfolio. Spokesman Marty Berkowitz said the office had no comment regarding the billboards, but said “we are hoping in the future that FirstEnergy will place a much greater emphasis on using energy efficiency to limit increases in its customers’ electric rates. And we have been making recommendations to the PUCO to seek a better outcome for customers in the future.”

In an interview, Sawmiller said the Sierra Club has several concerns regarding the case, but highlights include the utility not including potential energy-efficiency savings when it bids in auctions for electricity pricing, which results in higher prices for customers. The Sierra Club would rather FirstEnergy offer discounts for energy-efficient products such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-efficient products that customers can buy at retailers instead of being offered through special kits that can be requested through and sent to homes.

According to state law, all FirstEnergy customers pay for any discounted or free products offered and associated “lost revenue” for the company from energy savings.

State law requires regulated, investor-owned utilities such as FirstEnergy to reduce energy usage by 22.2 percent by the end of 2025 and reduce peak demand by 7.75 percent by the end of 2018.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.


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