If you live in an apartment complex or condo community, you could be forced to sign up with a submetering company and pay top dollar for your utilities.
Submetering companies serve thousands of central Ohioans by buying power from AEP at wholesale with the intention of reselling it after installing meters at apartments or condos.
ABC 6 On Your Side Investigators uncovered a gap in regulation allowing these companies to gouge customers and include extra or additional community charges.
Ohio does not regulate submetering companies, leaving tenants no other recourse other than to move out.
Devon Noble and her son spend time in their Columbus apartment in the dark all to save money on the power bill after a recent month's charge was more than $300.
Noble's bill is from Nationwide Energy Partners, a submetering company, serving roughly 30 thousand people.
"I thought why is it so high?" Noble said. "We make sure all the lights are turned off."
She's not alone. Attorney Mark Whitt said he was stunned when he saw his first bill. At the closing for his North Bank Park condo, he was forced to sign up with Nationwide Energy Partners. With nearly 20 years representing regulated utilities, like AEP, this raised some red flags for him.
"People have no choice," Whitt said. "I don't like to see hardworking people be taken advantage of."
The charges and billing for his utilities are ultimately decided by the submetering company since it's unregulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Whitt challenged it, and filed a complaint with the PUCO and showed off his bills in comparison to the breakdown of what an AEP customer would pay and found his charges were nearly double.
The Ohio Consumers' Counsel has received complaints but it can't do much. ABC 6 On Your Side Investigators showed utility policy analyst Jim Williams submetering bills from a handful of customers.
"I'm not aware of any kind of limitation on what their charges could be," Williams said. "You don't know what these charges are, what they represent, why they're being billed in this particular manner."
For that reason, the OCC filed a motion to ban submetering companies all together. The motion says there's a lack of oversight and consumers are charged with unreasonably high rates and have no protections.
The PUCO has opened an investigation but it has yet to rule on anything and can't discuss it with 6 On Your Side.
Despite complaints to the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau, submetering practices have not changed.
"Nobody can do anything and I just don't accept that," Whitt said.
This time around, Whitt took his frustrations to the court, joining with others who claim they've been victimized. A class action complaint was filed against Nationwide Energy Partners accusing the company of "deceptive sales practices," "falsely representing itself as a public utility," and "failing to issue bills in a timely way." Even in the fine print of the bills, it says, "failure to receive a bill does not change the due date or the possibility of disconnection for nonpayment."
ABC 6 On Your Side Investigators found dozens of lawsuits where Nationwide Energy Partners sued for unpaid bills and in some cases evicted renters. Regulated companies, like AEP, are unable to do that.
Noble has been frustrated, and even asked why she can't have AEP as her electric provider.
Nationwide Energy Partners refused ABC 6's request for an interview, however, it did do a bill analysis. The company says Noble has higher than average power usage and explained it uses the AEP rate calculator to come up with the charges.
In a statement, Nationwide Energy Partners CEO Gary Morsches said, "Nationwide Energy Partners consistently charges the same rates that the local host utilities charge. Additionally, we support smart submetering legislation that provides rate transparency and consumer protections."
Representative Mike Duffey said the issue lies within the charges. AEP bills for extras like the fund to help low income families with their bills in the winter. Additionally, a charge to recover the cost of renewable energy credits and another to replace the infrastructure in the future. All of those costs are not something Nationwide Energy Partners has, however, it's still charging similarly to AEP.
"There's no reason that submetering should exist unless it's a better deal than what AEP will offer," Duffey said. "I think the burden's on the submetering companies to show that they're adding some value that AEP wouldn't do."
Duffey has been trying to get legislation passed and he said four bill were proposed and failed last year. Duffey said they've had trouble getting traction because it's primarily a central Ohio issue.
ABC 6 On Your Side Investigators found more than $30,000 given to Ohio lawmakers by those connected to submetering companies. Duffey got more than a grand, but he said that has not influenced him.
"If we don't nip it in the bud here in central Ohio, it's going to proliferate and it's going to be very difficult to fix the problem later," Duffey said. "It's a completely unregulated area. You could call it a wild, wild west right now."
For many, they're left waiting and wondering if the Public Utilities Commission, court or legislature will act as they budget for bills they're forced to pay.