Soaring August energy bills shocked Portage County residents as NOPEC shifts customers

Photo by Fré Sonneveld

Facing skyrocketing rates from NOPEC, shocked customers are scrambling to other providers and warning neighbors to check their electric bills.

NOPEC’s standard program rates for the July-August period were 38% higher than they were during the May-June period, according to the organization’s figures.

The energy aggregator is booting its standard program and variable monthly rate customers back to Ohio Edison, which means they must either accept Ohio Edison’s rates or try for a better rate through Energy Choice Ohio’s Apples to Apples website. This temporary cost-saving switch affects over half a million people.

Customers who are enrolled in NOPEC’s 12-month fixed rate at 9.9 cents per kwh and 24-month fixed rate at 8.9 cents per kwh are not affected, company customer service reps said.

Customers are reeling from the sticker shock on their August bills.

Kent resident Cecil Anderson said his bill increased from $61 in June to $153 in July to $209 in August.

“I’m going to cancel NOPEC,” he said. “It’s absurd what we got to pay. I got to choose between the rising cost of food and the rising cost of utilities. If you sit down and look at a month’s worth of food bills, fuel bills, electric and natural gas bills, we’ve gone up a lot in three months. It’s absurd.”

Ravenna resident Colleen Moyer’s electric bill went from $86 in May to $138 in June to $191 in July. She said she has not yet received her August bill, and is not looking forward to it.

“It went up so high that I was shocked,” she said. “I am just fit to be tied. I’m worried what the next bill will be.”

Moyer said she will take advantage of the Apples to Apples website to get a better price and to free herself of NOPEC.

“I don’t want to get stuck in something that I can’t easily get out of,” she said.

Regardless of how soon customers switch to Ohio Edison or choose one of the other electric suppliers, those inflated bills won’t stop anytime soon. Ohio Edison refuses to expedite the changeover. Their customer service reps politely say it will take one to two billing cycles until the process is complete.

NOPEC has long promoted its ability to provide customers with competitive prices because it buys electricity in bulk from suppliers. But the nonprofit energy aggregator negotiates its costs on a monthly basis, and was recently blindsided by actual higher energy costs. Ohio Edison negotiates its rates on a yearly basis, so those higher rates haven’t hit home… yet.

Upon signing up with NOPEC, customer service representatives said, all customers were informed they were opting into potentially higher energy costs unless they opted out in writing.

Since few people read the fine print on those contracts, the opt-out clause went largely unnoticed. A few months ago, though, those higher bills appeared. Customers were facing bills almost triple what they had been, and were told, essentially: tough.

An Aug. 11 WOIO news report claiming that a customer did receive a refund is erroneous, NOPEC Communications Officer David Jankowski said. If NOPEC did what it was legally obligated to do, no refunds will be forthcoming, he said.

Jankowski blamed the recent price hikes on “the unprecedented increases related to international increases related to the Ukrainian war, hotter than normal weather across the country, plus general inflationary spikes that people have been experiencing.”

Most energy suppliers are currently offering rates at 10-14 cents per kilowatt hour, but Ohio Edison is closer to 7 cents, he said.

“If you’re willing to go out and commit contractually with a retailer for a longer period of time, you might be able to find slightly lower pricing, but buyer beware,” Jankowski said. “You could be locked into that contract, and if the market does come down, today 8.5 cents looks great, but maybe by next July, it’s not going to look so great.”

Whatever customers do, there’s a built-in risk.

“It’s a commodity market,” he said. “It’s volatile right now, extremely volatile. That’s why we’re making this move. We’re trying to put our customers into a safe, somewhat predictable and stable environment for the next several months in order to give them some relief. This is not NOPEC doing this to people. This is a market impact, and we’re trying to find a safe haven for our customers.”

To NOPEC Executive Director Chuck Keiper (the same Chuck Keiper who was a Portage County Commissioner from 1995 through 2010), cutting electric customers loose is simply doing what’s best for them.

“When we looked at the price forecasts, it became increasingly apparent that the Price to Compare rate would be a better place for our customers to be through winter 2023 to save significant money during these economically challenging times,” he said.                                                  

NOPEC forecasts that energy markets will stabilize by spring 2023, allowing the company to offer more competitive rates, Keiper said. 

“All eligible customers in NOPEC member communities will be notified via mail that they will be automatically re-enrolled in NOPEC at that time, unless they notify NOPEC that they wish to opt out,” according to a NOPEC press release.

If automatic opt-out schemes seem odd, blame it on deregulation. Jankowski said the state, not NOPEC, set the program decades ago, after looking at both opt-in and opt-out models various states had already adopted.

“They chose to go with the opt-out route,” he said. “That was a legislative decision back in 1999 to set up aggregation in an opt-out format because the opt-in models received very little participation. We are simply administering our program the way the state set it up.”

Not sure if you’re affected? You are if you live in Atwater, Brimfield, Deerfield, Edinburg, Franklin, Freedom, Garrettsville, Hiram Township or the Village of Hiram, Kent, Mantua Township, Nelson, Palmyra, Paris, Randolph, Ravenna Township, Rootstown, Shalersville, Suffield, Sugar Bush Knolls, or Windham Township.

Keeping your eyes peeled appears to be your best — and only — strategy. Attorneys working with ClassAction.org investigated, but then did not pursue, a potential class-action lawsuit against NOPEC and Next Era so customers could get their money back.

(NOPEC works with NextEra, a third-party energy supplier that provides gas and electricity throughout Northeast Ohio. Look on the right hand column of your bill. It’s listed there.)

Relief may be available for customers who qualify for assistance through Community Action Council of Portage County. Executive Director David Shea says the nonprofit has not seen an influx of requests specifically due to increased NOPEC bills, but notes rising utility costs across the board have translated to a “tremendous increase” in clients seeking help.

Final thought: Colder weather is coming, and there’s no word what will happen with NOPEC’s gas prices. Keiper says they’re still lower than Dominion East Ohio’s.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

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