PUCO orders new probe of Duke Energy’s disconnection practices

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Ohio utility regulators are ordering a new investigation of disconnection practices of Duke Energy, a move that follows a ruling in August that the company was not completely following state rules when it cut off heat to a home in which two people later died of hypothermia.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio voted on Wednesday to open the investigation, which will include the hiring of an independent auditing firm. The audit will be conducted at Duke’s expense.

Although the investigation covers only Duke — a utility that provides natural gas and electricity in the Cincinnati area — its results could change the way regulators approach disconnections for people who are behind on payment, and thus have implications for utilities across the state.

“As in any other PUCO audit, Duke Energy Ohio will fully cooperate with commission staff,” Duke spokeswoman Sally Thelen said in a statement. “We believe our disconnect policies and procedures adhere to commission regulations.”

This is the latest step in a long-running dispute in which consumer advocates have said that Duke’s high number of disconnections might indicate that the utility is not following rules. The conflict escalated late last month when the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel asked the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene and force the PUCO to end delays in making procedural decisions in a complaint case.

Wednesday’s action would seem to answer some of the concerns raised with the court. In addition to ordering the investigation, the PUCO, in a separate vote, dismissed the Consumers’ Counsel’s complaint, saying that the issues in the complaint are being resolved, or have been resolved, in other cases.

One of the related rulings was in August when the commission found that Duke had not followed state rules prior to a 2011 incident in which two Cincinnati residents whose service had been turned off died of hypothermia. That case is still subject to appeal, and Duke has said it disagrees with the decision.

A spokesman for the counsel’s office had no immediate comment.

The next step is that prospective auditors can apply to work with PUCO staff members on the probe. The commission’s goal is to have a final report made public by February. The case number is 17-2089.

PUCO orders new probe of Duke Energy’s disconnection practices