MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Here's a more local effort at energy efficiency - an effort that has not gone over well - in Ohio, a utility called FirstEnergy Corporation wants to send its customers a pair of energy-efficient bulbs and then charge nearly three times what it spent for them.
From member station WKSU, Karen Schaefer reports.
KAREN SCHAEFER: Like most Ohio customers, suburban Akron resident Bob McKown only heard about FirstEnergy's light bulb program a couple of weeks ago.
Mr. BOB MCKOWN: Oh, outrageous. I mean, 21 bucks for two bulbs. I mean, plus, you don't have no choice in the matter. I mean, they're cramming it down your throat.
SCHAEFER: Standing outside a Home Depot store in Akron, where FirstEnergy is headquartered, McKown says he already uses energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Mr. MCKOWN: I got them on sale. I think it was here. There was, like, five of them for $10 or something. So, you know, no.
SCHAEFER: McKown is one of thousands of FirstEnergy customers who protested the company's strategy to make customers pay for saving energy. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland quickly asked state regulators to put the program on hold. FirstEnergy spokeswoman Ellen Raines says the utility was taken by surprise.
Ms. ELLEN RAINES (Spokeswoman, FirstEnergy): We certainly didn't anticipate the level of reaction that we got from customers. We certainly expected that people would wonder why we were delivering light bulbs to their homes.
SCHAEFER: Raines says the program was designed to help FirstEnergy meet Ohio's new law requiring utilities to help customers be more energy efficient. But customers like McKown didn't expect to be charged more than $20 for a couple of light bulbs they didn't ask for, when they can buy 10 such bulbs for that same money. Raines says the utility is also charging customers for some of the electricity they save, something it's allowed to do to recoup lost revenue. She says, in the long run customers would save money.
Ms. RAINES: Over the life of the bulb, they would save about $60. So we were hopeful that customers would see this as a good change that they would be saving $60, and the cost would be collected over a lengthy period of time.
SCHAEFER: Other utilities in Ohio and across the country are also trying to help customers reduce their energy use. But here's the twist. As utilities are asked to cut output, customers are asked to pay more. Neal Elliott with the Washington-based American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says most companies offer coupons or rebates for light bulbs, which keeps costs lower for consumers. He says FirstEnergy is trying to meet its mandates by making the bulbs mandatory and expensive.
Mr. NEAL ELLIOTT (American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy): They weren't serious about planning. They had to rush the program. And they got a program that was not well thought out, either from the programmatic design perspective or from the public relations perspective. And they ended up with a black eye.
SCHAEFER: It's not the first time. Six years ago, FirstEnergy was charged with contributing to the biggest blackout in U.S. history. The company will have a chance to defend its light bulb program at a public hearing later this month. That's when it could be decided whether shareholders or ratepayers will end up swallowing the $10 million the utility has already spent on the bulbs.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer in Kent, Ohio.
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