On Wednesday the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio unanimously ruled that Akron, Ohio-based energy supplier FirstEnergy Corp. must credit its Ohio customers $43.3 million for overcharging for renewable energy credits (RECs) from 2009-2011 that it purchased from its affiliate, FirstEnergy Solutions.
RECs are tradable, non-tangible energy credits that represent proof that one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity has been sourced from an eligible renewable energy resource. First Energy Solutions is an energy generator and supplier, while First Energy Corp. is an electricity distributor, which means that it sources its electricity from elsewhere, which requires them to issue bids seeking the most competitively priced energy from a supplier such as First Energy Solutions.
According to the First Energy Corp. website, First Energy Solutions is the competitive subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. Both suppliers are based in Akron. An audit conducted by Exeter Associates Inc. revealed that FirstEnergy Corp. paid 15 times more than any other company in the country to purchase the RECs from FirstEnergy Solutions, and FirstEnergy Corp. passed that overcharge onto consumers.
In a copy of the order issued yesterday by the PUC obtained by CityBeat, it states that, "The Companies contend that, given the nascent market, lack of market information available to the Companies, and uncertainty regarding future supply and prices, the Companies' decisions to purchase in-state RECs were reasonable and prudent."
In summary, FirstEnergy contends that because it was scrambling to find a way to meet the state's Clean Energy Law requirements, it had to buy these RECs no matter the cost, and that there are no legal specifications within the Clean Energy Law that requires RECs be purchased or sold at market price; and that the costs issued to them, and subsequently, customers, weren't unreasonable.
The Ohio Consumers Counsel, however, says that there were cheaper alternatives available and that FirstEnergy should have checked with the PUC prior to paying 15 times more for RECs than any other country had in the past. If they'd rejected the exorbitant bids, says OCC, and instead consulted with PUC and OCC, they could have come up with a solution to prevent from charging customers excessively high rates.
In June 2012, FirstEnergy Solutions was the winning bidder in Cincinnati's energy aggregation program, which is supposed to allow us to receive lower "aggregate" rates for buying in bulk. At the time, FirstEnergy touted the merits of its "100 percent green" energy supply, sourced from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable resources. The bid was expected to save homeowners around $133 annually.
What enabled FirstEnergy to provide the "clean" energy was its use of a system with non-tangible renewable energy credit (RECs) that each represent proof that one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity has been sources from a renewable energy resource.
Purchasing the credits from its subsidiary allows FirstEnergy Corp. to meet the state's renewable energy standard, which requires that by 2025 all Ohio utility companies provide at least 25 percent of their energy from renewable resources.
Because the lawsuit issued by the PUC examines only the amount paid for RECs during compliance periods between 2009 and 2011, Cincinnati customers who switched to FirstEnergy Solutions last June should not be affected, although the FirstEnergy arms' ambiguous behavior, says Dan Sawmiller, a Sierra Club member who manages Ohio's Beyond Coal campaign, is a likely indicator that the company may be engaging in other unethical practices related to consumer transparency.
The company has not been devoid of controversy in the past. In March, CityBeat reported on state environmental groups' concerns with the movement to lower requirements for defining renewable energy and energy efficiency; FirstEnergy was part of the bloc working to weaken Ohio's Clean Energy Law in hopes of keeping corporation costs low. FirstEnergy was also chastised by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in 2009 for distributing and charging customers for energy-efficient light bulbs without receiving customers' authorization.
Sawmiller commended the PUC for fining First Energy, although he suggests the fine is likely modest for the actual damages. He still expresses concern about the need for corporate separation between the two FirstEnergy arms. "The commission left much to be desired in terms of transparency, leaving customers in the dark about what types of renewables are being provided, where are they coming from and at what cost," says Sawmiller in Sierra Club's press release.
Ohioans who tried to obtain health insurance through HealthCare.gov, the online portal for Obamacare’s marketplaces, on its opening day likely ran into a few problems, ranging from delays to problems logging in.
Before logging in, participants typically go through a waiting period that can last up to a few minutes. During this time, a large message pops up that says, “Health Insurance Marketplace: Please wait. We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”
Following the waiting period, logging in can become its own challenge. After entering a username and password, the screen often flashes a “Downstream Error,” occasionally joined with the incomprehensible code “E501.”
Even if someone manages to get through the issues and log in,
another error message can pop up that makes browsing insurance plans impossible.
The problems aren’t necessarily unexpected — new software often launches with glitches that are later patched up — and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is asking participants to be patient.
“We’re building a complicated piece of technology, and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters at a Sept. 30 briefing.
Federal officials also caution that Oct. 1 is just one day of the six-month enrollment period, which will last through March. And even if someone did manage to sign up on the first day, none of the insurance plans begin coverage until Jan. 1.
Once the marketplaces do work correctly, officials promise that they will allow Cincinnatians to browse, compare and select from 46 different private insurance plans that range from a “bronze” plan that costs and covers the least to a “platinum” plan that costs and covers the most.
The plans’ raw premiums are also 16 percent lower than the federal government previously projected, according to the latest Congressional Budget Office numbers. An Ohio 27-year-old making $25,000 a year will be able to buy a “silver,” or middle-of-the-pack, plan for as low as $145 a month after tax credits, while an Ohio family of four making $50,000 a year will be able to pay $282 a month for a similar plan. Without the tax credits, the individual will pay $212 a month and the family of four will pay $768 a month.
Participants must make between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level a year, or $11,490 to $45,960 in annual income for an individual, to be eligible for tax credits. Higher income levels will get smaller subsidies; lower income levels will get larger subsidies.
Anyone interested in the marketplaces can browse options and sign up online at HealthCare.gov, by phone at 800-318-2596 or in person at various locations, including community health centers and the Freestore Foodbank.
Updated: Added more details about tax subsidies in Ohio’s marketplaces.
The lead feature article in the new issue of The New Yorker focuses on the anti-gang program Cincinnati implemented two years ago. John Seabrook's "Don't Shoot" is a long, well-researched and well-written story about David Kennedy, who devised the "Ceasefire" crime-fighting model in Boston, and his experiences here implementing C.I.R.V. (Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Crime).
A resident has filed a complaint with the city's Law Department, alleging that Christopher Smitherman’s dual role as a Cincinnati city councilman and president of the NAACP’s local chapter constitutes an abuse of corporate powers.
In his complaint, resident Casey Coston states that the NAACP’s status as a 501(c)(4) organization under the federal tax code allows it to lobby City Hall and participate in political campaigns and elections without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Such activities are a conflict of interest with Smitherman’s council duties, Coston alleges.
In the ongoing saga of Western & Southern vs. the Anna Louise Inn, there have been several court cases and zoning rulings, most of which have been appealed by one side or the other. Today it was the Cincinnati Zoning Board of Appeals’ turn to rule on something that’s already been ruled on, and it went in favor of the Anna Louise Inn.
The Board upheld a certificate of appropriateness for the Anna Louise Inn’s planned renovation, which essentially also upholds the Historic Conservation Board’s right to issue a conditional use permit — at least for now. Western & Southern is expected to appeal that permit, granted by the Conservation Board Aug. 27, before its 30-day window to do so expires.
Before this series of appeals can play out, the 1st District Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the Anna Louise Inn’s appeal of Judge Norbert Nadel’s May 27 ruling, which set in motion the Inn’s attempts to secure zoning approval from the Historical Conservation Board in the first place.
(All of this could have been avoided if Western & Southern would have purchased the Anna Louise Inn when it had the chance. CityBeat previously reported the details of Western & Southern’s failure to purchase the Inn and the company’s subsequent attempts to force the Inn out of the neighborhood here.)
About 40 people attended today’s hearing, including City Councilman Wendell Young, who said he supports the Anna Louise Inn but was not there to testify on its behalf.
By upholding the certificate of appropriateness, the ruling keeps alive a conditional use permit that could allow the Anna Louise Inn to move forward with a $13 million renovation of its historic building, once the expected appeals process plays out. (CityBeat covered the Aug. 27 Historical Conservation Board hearing here.)
The Board heard brief arguments from lawyers for both Western & Southern and Cincinnati Union Bethel and then entered executive session for about 15 minutes before ruling in favor of the Anna Louise Inn.
Western & Southern lawyer Francis Barrett, who is the brother of Western & Southern CEO John Barrett and a member of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees, told CityBeat after the meeting that he disagreed with the board’s finding because a designed expansion of the building’s fifth floor has not yet had its use approved.
“With this case, the Historical Conservation Board is basically approving for the certificate of appropriateness the design of the building,” Barrett said. “But the design included an expansion of the fifth floor, and until that use issue is resolved the code reads, in my opinion, you can’t approve the design because the use hasn’t been approved.”
Barrett during the hearing read a written statement to the board arguing two main points: that the Historic Conservation Board didn’t have the jurisdiction to grant the certificate of appropriateness; and even if it did, Barrett argued, the physical expansion planned makes it a non-conforming use which wouldn’t qualify for the building permit.
Cincinnati Union Bethel attorney Tim Burke told the Board that the Anna Louise Inn is not seeking a permit for non-conforming use because it already received a conditional use permit from the Historic Conservation Board.
“Western & Southern is doing everything it can to block this renovation from happening,” Burke told the Board.
At the Historic Conservation Board hearing last month
Western & Southern tried paint a picture of the Anna Louise Inn’s
residents contributing to crime in the area because a condition of the
conditional use permit is that the building’s use will not be
detrimental to public health and safety or negatively affect property
values in the neighborhood. But the Board granted the permit, stating
that the Anna Louise Inn will not be detrimental to public health and
safety or harmful to nearby properties in the neighborhood and that the
Board found no direct evidence connecting residents of the Anna Louise
Inn to criminal activity in the neighborhood. Western & Southern has until next week to appeal that ruling.
CityBeat doesn’t like to revel in anyone’s misery or misfortune. Sometimes, though, there’s a confluence between a person’s political philosophy and subsequent events that begs for attention and analysis. One such instance is the foreclosure and impending sale of the house owned by an anti-tax leader.
Cincinnati native Whitney Holwadel Smith, born April 10, 1984, died April 4, 2009, of suicide at the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Terre Haute. Smith had reportedly been depressed and emotionally broken after being forced to spend more than a year in the Segregated Housing Unit (The Hole).
Smith grew up in Mount Lookout and was sentenced to the Dayton Correctional Institution as an adult for his first robbery at 17-years-old. From 2002-2003 he wrote a regular column on prison life and his struggle to rehabilitate for XRay Cincinnati Magazine which I published. Smith was released in 2005 and convicted the same year for bank robbery. He was sentenced to more than six years at the USP Terre Haute. Smith's blog, Super Friends: The life and times of an inmate at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute has been published since November 2008. It was notable for being an unusually lucid and frank account of prison life. Smith's writing was variously acerbic, humorous, brutal and hopeful.
After his 2005 release, Whit lived in my home. He was a kind young man with a good heart and a broken one, too. He was my friend. After many discussions in both the outside world and behind barbed wire fences, I still don't fully understand why he committed the crimes he did. He walked through his short life with a corrupted mind that led him to poor choices again and again. His choices to be a criminal were his and he deserved his time, but I also earnestly believe he was let down by a justice system that should help offenders rehabilitate — that is to restore dignity — rather than beat them down into someone more jaded and injured than they were at the time of their arrest. My 2005 CityBeat article Prisoners Forever articlewas inspired by Whit's journey through the prison system.
A memorial for Whit will be held on Wednesday, April 8 at 2:30 p.m. at the Civic Garden Center, 2715 Reading Rd. at 2:30 p.m. It is open to the public.
If you would like to make a donation in Whit's memory, the family has asked that those be made to Circle Tail, an animal shelter in Loveland, Ohio. Whit had recently told his father, Jeff Smith, that he hoped to volunteer at an animal shelter when he got out of prison. Circle Tail works with a several prisons to foster their shelter animals before they are placed in a permanent home.
Touts Mandel's Ability To Consistently Repeat Previously Debunked Lies: "Us Serial Liars Need To Stick Together"COLUMBUS, OHIO – The Boy Who Cried Wolf announced his endorsement of Josh Mandel today, ending speculation about who the world renowned liar would support in the Ohio senate race this November. "Josh Mandel shares my ideals, my values and most importantly my less-than-casual relationship with the truth," said the Boy Who Cried Wolf. "Us serial liars need to stick together, and now that Josh Mandel's officially been crowned King of Ohio's Liars, the choice for me is simple. I'm honored to support Josh and I look forward to joining him and his special interest friends on the campaign trail as they lie about Sherrod and distort his record on the issues from now through November." The Boy Who Cried Wolf rose to fame for repeatedly proclaiming that his sheep were being attacked by a wolf, when in fact, no wolf had attacked his sheep. Much like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, Josh Mandel's star has risen largely because of his penchant for repeating previously debunked lies. This week Josh Mandel earned the "Pants on Fire crown" from Politifact Ohio, an award reserved for the worst liar among all Ohio politicians. ### Paid for by the Ohio Democratic Party, Chris Redfern, Chairman
UPDATE: Although CityBeat got this list from sources within The Enquirer's Elm Street offices, some bloggers now say James Jackson hasn't been laid off. With no official word forthcoming from The Enquirer or Mr. Jackson, we'll change his status to "unclear."
UPDATE II: Jackson just tweeted the following, circa 10:30 p.m. "In this economy, these are tough times for all, and I'm so sad about friends losing their jobs, equally grateful also still to have mine."
Carl Lindner and Richard Farmer, are you paying attention?
In an exclusive at the Politico Web site this week, reporters obtained a copy of a confidential PowerPoint presentation created by the Republican National Committee about how it intends on raising money during this election cycle.