AEP wants help with storm costs

American Electric Power is asking the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to approve an additional monthly charge to customers’ bills to help recoup money spent to recover from the costly June derecho.

“For normal storms, this is something we budget for. It’s part of our normal costs. For storms like this that are unexpected, large scale storms, that is something that we, nor really any utility company budget for,” said Terri Flora, director of communications for AEP.

However, some customers have balked at the thought of having to foot the power company’s bill.

“If they took better care of their equipment in the first place, then they wouldn’t have had so much trouble getting back online,” said AEP customer Joel Freier, 60, of Barlow.

Freier said he feels very strongly that the company should not be trying to pass along the bill to customers.

Nearly half of AEP’s 1.5 million Ohio customers experienced electricity outages as a result of the June 29 storm.

Belpre resident Steve Smith was one of those residents and he does not think the customers should pay for what was, in his opinion, a poor response to the storm.

“We never did see AEP for the whole six and half days we were without power,” said Smith.

A South Carolina company was responsible for getting Smith’s family back online, he said.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he is also concerned about reliability and response times in our area.

“I’m engaged with AEP and the local co-op folks,” said Thompson, who added he hopes to have a public forum in the spring.

Thompson also suggested that the $61.8 million reimbursement figure put forth by AEP needs to be scrutinized before being accepted.

About 94 percent of those costs come from paying the out-of-state crews, such as the one who helped get Smith’s power back online.

The rest of the money will help pay for equipment and repair costs. In addition, AEP already subtracted $5 million from that sum that they set aside annually for normal storm damage.

If PUCO approves the request, an average customer would pay approximately $3 more a month for 12 months.

“This is not a change in rates. We can only collect it for 12 months and then it’s done. The average customer would pay about $36 a year,” said Flora.

But $36 might be difficult for some families, said Marietta resident Sally Evans, 70.

Evans said she would want to know specifics about what AEP is expecting reimbursement for and what customers it would affect.

“It doesn’t seem fair to charge the customers in unaffected areas,” she said.

Some feel even the customers in affected areas shouldn’t have to pay.

“Everybody had a loss and everybody suffered, but the electric company shouldn’t have the right to start charging customers for their expense,” said Marietta City Safety-Service Director Jonathan Hupp. “Where does it stop? That’s the cost of doing business.”

The city is not AEP’s average customer. Last year the city allotted $274,000 for electric bills and surpassed that budgeted amount, said Hupp.

If AEP’s Storm Recovery Act is successful and an average customer is paying an extra 2 percent, the city could find itself footing an extra $5,500 next year.

“It’s money that could be used elsewhere,” said Hupp, adding that the city is losing its inheritance tax and grants funds are getting harder to come by.

Flora said it’s a fairly standard process for utility companies around the country to request reimbursement for large scale disasters through its customers.

“Florida, which experiences more hurricanes, has an ongoing charge on customer bills to fund storm damage,” she pointed out.

AEP last requested storm reimbursement, around $28 million, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008, said Flora.

Not all customers are opposed to helping AEP recoup the costs incurred in the aftermath of the disastrous June storm.

“I’d rather do that than see the rates go up,” said Marietta resident Mary Antons, who said that AEP was fantastic while working to restore her power after the storm.

Customers are likely going to have to foot the bill either way, and the 12-month fee seems the most direct and least costly way to do that, said Antons.

PUCO has yet to decide on the request. It will likely take the commission until spring to review and accept or deny the request, said Flora.

If it approves the request, AEP can start immediately start adding the fee to customers’ bills.