CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission declined to endorse a resolution opposing the sale of the Harrison Power Plant Thursday, with several commissioners saying they lacked sufficient information to approve the measure.
[cleeng_content id="711385875" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Only the Calhoun County Commission has so far passed a resolution condemning the sale.
Opponents of the sale claim the aging coal-fired power plant – which would be transferred from one FirstEnergy subsidiary to another at a cost of $1.1 billion, with the costs to be covered by an initial 6 percent rate increase – is worth less than half of what FirstEnergy claims.
They say the sale is motivated by the plant’s inability to compete in states with deregulated markets, where customers are able to choose between a variety of electricity providers. By moving the plant into West Virginia’s regulated monopoly market, they say, FirstEnergy will transfer the risk of rising coal costs and future environmental regulations to the state’s ratepayers.
Charles Friddle, FirstEnergy’s director of external affairs, disputed these claims in testimony before the commission, though he did not offer specific details. He declined to be interviewed following his testimony.
“I would ask the Commission not to approve the resolution in opposition to this transaction because there is simply not enough time to present all the facts needed to make a decision,” Friddle testified. “This is a complicated, complex issue that is in front of the Public Service Commission.
“There is a cost with this transaction, but let me be clear: doing nothing also has a cost. Implementing energy efficiency programs has a cost. Securing other sources of generation has a cost. That is why the Public Service Commission is the proper body to make a decision, since they have the knowledge, expertise and evidence from all parties to draw upon to make a decision.”
Friddle said the transaction was in the best interests of the utility’s customers. He said it would cost more for FirstEnergy to buy electricity on the market, which would be necessary soon if it did not increase its own generation capacity.
Several commissioners took the opportunity to grill the representative about recent widely reported billing issues during which many residents complained of months of badly estimated bills followed by an enormous “shock bill” that was many times the size of their ordinary bills.
Commissioner Dale Manuel pointed out that FirstEnergy had declined to send a representative to a large meeting convened by the NAACP and the Sierra Club to examine the billing issues.
“The NAACP held a public meeting on this issue. FirstEnergy didn’t send a representative to answer the questions of the people,” Manuel said. “I’m wondering if you can explain that position to me.”
Friddle said it was his understanding that the NAACP held a meeting regarding billing issues, not the generation transaction.
Announcements for the meeting released at the time indicated that both recent billing issues and the sale of the Harrison Power Plant would be discussed.
“They knew that there were problems,” Manuel asked. “They knew that people were disgruntled. Why didn’t they send a representative?”
Friddle responded that confidentiality requirements would have prevented FirstEnergy from addressing individual billing issues. He also pointed out that the Public Service Commission had not sent a representative either.
“That certainly does not mean you couldn’t have sent someone, and, I think, doesn’t excuse your not being willing to talk to your customers,” Manuel said.
Commissioner Walt Pellish strongly condemned FirstEnergy’s handling of the situation.
“I’m going to take the opportunity to express extreme dissatisfaction with the company’s handling of the rate issues and the meter reading issues. In my opinion, that was a public relations disaster,” he said. “It was poor management to one of the worst extents I’ve seen. You made no attempt to ease the situation with your ratepayers. And, quite frankly, in the business world I came from, if someone had been responsible for making certain decisions they (would have) lost their job.”
“We have handled it very poorly. The merger that we went through with FirstEnergy, when we merged our computer systems … it was a disaster,” he said. “As time went along we had some things that created almost a perfect storm in our billing.”
Commissioner Patsy Noland said that promises of easily available interest-free payment plans had not been fulfilled in many cases.
“The power company has been less than willing to work with them in trying to get their bills paid,” Noland said. “It is no fault of these people that their meters were not read, and then they are stuck with big bills to pay. And no cooperation, or very little cooperation, from the power company.”
Commissioners were more divided when it came to the matter of the Harrison Power Plant.
Pellish categorically rejected a resolution opposing the sale.
“It is none of our business. This is a PSC matter,” he said. “I expect qualified people to make that decision.”
“I am probably the most qualified person in this room in terms of mergers, acquisitions and financial analysis,” said Pellish, a retired business executive, “and I wouldn’t touch affirming the allegations that are in this resolution because I don’t know if they’re true, and I don’t know if they’re not true.”
Commissioner Jane Tabb said she was sympathetic to the resolution but did not have enough information to support it. “With more information, I may be on board,” she said.
Noland echoed these sentiments.
Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said she was ready to support the resolution, as did Manuel.
“I think it is our job to weigh in on these things,” Widmyer said.
The commission will take up the resolution – possibly in an amended version – Thursday.