FirstEnergy’s second blackout in Ohio far more costly

Thanks to the mountains of money the company shoveled into the Ohio Statehouse, the question of the day is whether Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. is in the electricity business or the politics business.

Documents that surfaced recently about a consulting agreement FirstEnergy had with future Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chair Sam Randazzo, show clearly the tendrils that can wind between the regulators and the regulated at Ohio’s Statehouse. Gov. Mike DeWine later named Randazzo to the PUCO and designated him its chair. Randazzo resigned from the commission after the FBI searched his home last fall — has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

FirstEnergy — a merger of the Illuminating, Ohio Edison and Toledo Edison companies — seems to be more focused on politics than electricity, given 2019′s House Bill 6 nuclear power plant bailout, HB 6′s ensuing “repeal,” and the indictment of five Statehouse figures, including then-House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican, in connection with HB 6′s passage in mid-2019.

If the p.r. answer is supposed to be that FirstEnergy is first and foremost an electric utility, then perhaps it’s worth recalling 2003′s Great Blackout. It began 18 years ago, on Aug. 14, 2003, when millions of people in eight Northeastern states and southern Canada lost power.

What had happened, the Scientific American reported, was this: A high voltage FirstEnergy line in Northern Ohio — likely in Walton Hills, the Greater Cleveland suburb — brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down. “Normally, the problem would have tripped an alarm in the control room of FirstEnergy … but the alarm system failed,” the magazine reported. In the ensuing confusion, “50 million people lost power for up to two days in the biggest blackout in North American history [contributing] to at least 11 deaths and [costing] an estimated $6 billion.”

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later reported, “A joint U.S.-Canada task force said … that FirstEnergy Corp. … was largely to blame for the massive blackout.”

So much for the electricity business. Because public utilities are state-regulated — though to use the word “regulated” in any Ohio context is being loose with the language — politics is of interest not only to utility bosses but also to utility investors and stock market operators.

The Illuminating Co., a FirstEnergy parent, had an especially big niche in Statehouse political history. For many years, ending late in the 1930s, its long-term lobbyist, Harry W. Wilson, of Solon, was considered most powerful of that era’s Statehouse lobbyists.

But Wilson never registered as a lobbyist, and he was never seen in the Statehouse. Instead, Wilson — unusually, a Democrat — managed the legislature from his room at the Columbus Athletic Club, to which General Assembly members were summoned for instructions. Wilson was said to be so influential that his backing of someone for Senate president pro tempore (today’s Senate president) assured that candidate’s election.

Gamey as that “system” was, it was more honest than today’s set-up. Now, lobbyists must register and reveal certain expenditures — meaningless expenditures.

And, oh yes, today Ohio has a supposed merit-selection-type setup for picking PUCO commissioners — a phony “process” that has just one aim: To preserve the status quo at the PUCO.

And regardless of any possible court action, that (bipartisan) status quo will likely remain. Randazzo was unanimously confirmed by Senate Democrats as well as by Senate Republicans. HB 6 passed with the help of some Senate Democrats and some House Democrats. Householder, a Republican, became speaker only with the help of 26 of Ohio House Democrats.

Ohio needs to face reality. Ohio needs a Public Utilities Commission elected by the voters.

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. Previously, he was a veteran Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.