FirstEnergy to give away 3.75 million low-energy light bulbs

By John Funk
The Plain Dealer
October 05, 2009

FirstEnergy Corp. is getting ready to leave two high-efficiency light bulbs on your doorstep. But they’re not a gift.

The utility will charge average users 60 cents a month extra on their electric bills for the next three years — $21.60 all together. That covers the cost of the bulbs ($3.50 each), their delivery and the delivery of the power consumers would have used if they didn’t have them.

The good news: These compact fluorescent bulbs will reduce your electricity use. If you replace two 100-watt incandescent bulbs with these 23-watt, warm-white CFLs, you’ll save $60 by the time they burn out in five to seven years, according to FirstEnergy.

And you’ll pay for the bulbs whether you use them or not, so it makes sense to use them.

FirstEnergy is distributing the 3.75 million bulbs to comply in part with an energy law enacted in Ohio last year. The law requires utilities to cut their customers’ energy use by 22 percent by 2025. The law also mandates that utilities use solar, wind turbines and other renewable energy sources. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved the light bulb distribution and the extra charge on your bill.

“Energy efficiency enhancements have up-front costs that are paid back over time through savings on your energy bills,” FirstEnergy spokeswoman Ellen Raines said Monday. “The savings far outweigh the cost of the program. And we hope customers who have not used CFL bulbs will like them.

But the company — and therefore you — are paying too much for the bulbs, said Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. A five-pack of similar bulbs costs $13.99 from Ace Hardware’s Web site.

FirstEnergy bought Chinese-made bulbs from three distributors including TCP Inc. of Aurora, because it couldn’t find any made in the United States. A California company will deliver 3 million of them door-to-door to Illuminating Co., Ohio Edison and Toledo Edison customers. The rest will be mailed.

Passing out the bulbs is not the way to persuade people to use them, Migden-Ostrander said. The company should have given its customers discount coupons and let them shop for the best deal, she said.

The company’s lawyers resisted that, arguing that FirstEnergy had to begin cutting back power deliveries right away to meet the terms of the new law.

During debates in the Ohio House and Senate, discussion about wind turbines and solar fields got more attention than energy efficiency – but they’re part of the same argument: that the nation can’t go on using energy as if it were inexhaustible.

State lawmakers were convinced that Congress would push efficiency mandates and lower emissions from coal-fired power plants.

That law, now headed for debates in the U.S. Senate, could force the closing of the dirtiest, oldest and smallest power plants, Migden-Ostrander said.

The choice utilities and society have is whether to spend billions of dollars on new power plants or try to reduce demand and use less electricity.

FirstEnergy also plans by the end of the year to unveil an on-line home energy audit program. It will allow you to find out – at no charge – how inefficient your electricity use is and what to do about it.

If you don’t own a computer, the company will do it for you over the phone, according to information FirstEnergy filed with the PUCO.

It will be “free,” just like the bulbs are free.

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