- The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio met in special session this week to issue an order prohibiting competitive gas and electricity supply companies from sending sales staff door-to-door during the declared coronavirus emergency.
- The order came one day after a formal request filed by the Ohio Consumers' Counsel recommending that the PUCO "immediately and indefinitely halt energy marketers' door-to-door sales so as to protect Ohioans from the coronavirus." The filing noted that the Pennsylvania PUC had approved a similar measure on Monday. The Illinois Commerce Commission adopted a similar order Wednesday.
- PUCO's order limits the ban to the duration of Ohio's coronavirus emergency declared March 9 by Gov. Mike DeWine. "Marketing practices involving in-person contact like door-to-door and in-store marketing by … suppliers present unnecessary risk of spreading COVID-19 to all individuals, particularly with respect to at-risk populations," the order reads.
The consumers' counsel proposal argued not only that door-to-door sales now pose a "health risk" but also that "policing the tactics" of some of the marketing companies is difficult.
"With schools and potentially businesses closing for the next three weeks (and maybe much longer), there will be even more Ohioans at home and subject to what are now health risks of door-to-door sales," attorneys for the consumers' counsel wrote. "Responsible marketers would already be suspending their door-to-door sales. But, as is clear from several recent mis-marketing cases, the PUCO cannot allow the marketing industry to self-regulate."
The Retail Energy Supply Association had no immediate comment. But Dublin, Ohio-based IGS Energy, an independent gas and power supplier, noted that it had suspended in-person sales before regulators began banning the practice.
"IGS Energy recognizes that the health and safety of our employees and the general public is paramount during this uncertain time. It is for that reason that we proactively suspended our door-to-door and in-person sales activities prior to the issuance of the Commission's order," wrote Michael Nugent, senior regulatory counsel, in an email exchange. "We will continue to monitor this situation and work proactively to mitigate the spread of COVID-19."
Samuel Randazzo, chair of the PUCO, said before the commission voted to approve the order that the consumers' counsel should have just called the agency.
Consumers' Counsel Bruce Weston thanked the PUCO for its immediate action. "I appreciate that the PUCO acted so promptly after our request yesterday to halt door-to-door sales by energy marketers," he said in a statement.
The consumers' counsel's website references a long-standing opposition to door-to-door solicitation by a consortium of Ohio municipalities that negotiates with energy suppliers for bulk contracts. The Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC), created by the same legislation that deregulated the state's energy markets in 1999, launched its "Block the Knock" program in 2015 to wall off potential residential customers from competing sales agents.
By law, consumers can opt out of NOPEC's mass contracts at any time and independently choose suppliers. But most do not.
Block the Knock grew out of questions for help from member communities to NOPEC said Chuck Keiper, the organization's executive director. Older residents were a particular concern, he said.
Block the Knock offers member communities a model to require marketers to register, he said. The companies are then given a list of addresses of residents who do not want to be bothered. "We are not evangelizing this program," said Keiper, "but in this situation, it's wonderful, especially for seniors." Older adults are more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.