Last month, when the city of Cincinnati announced it had opted out of buying its power from Duke Energy "” choosing instead a less expensive, clean energy bid from an alternative provider "” it made national news. Belying the hoopla, the move was just the latest defection by Ohio customers seeking cheaper prices and more earth-friendly options.

Through the Ohio Customer Choice program, in place since 2001, customers can take their business to one of more than a dozen companies other than their area's main provider. Since 2008, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) figures, more than 1.3 million Ohio residents and companies did just that. Last year alone, Duke lost more than 100,000 of its customers to other energy providers.

"The Customer Choice program has been around for a decade, but we've really seen the figures jump the last few years," says PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling. "I think, as the word spreads, people are realizing they have options and they're taking the opportunity to study them."

Duke Delivers

The program affects which company provides what comes down the power lines and through the gas lines to your home. In Cincinnati, Duke owns the lines and is still responsible for delivering energy to your home or business, and will still respond to maintenance and emergency calls, even if you switch. It also affects how much you'll pay for that power to be generated.

In some cases, according to PUCO figures, the difference can be significant, and more so for heavy users like businesses.

Don Marshall, founder of Bridgetown-based Eagle Energy, says he's consulted small business owners who would save as much as $80,000.

"Now, for larger businesses, that's not a lot of money," he says, "but for small- to mid-sized companies, it's big. That number goes right to their bottom line."

Marshall, a former officer with the old Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company, started his new business just as the Customer Choice program took effect. His firm, the only local alternative firm accredited by PUCO, specializes in commercial customers and advising municipalities on aggregation (or, bargaining for better rates for their residents as a whole).

To date, Marshall's worked with eight communities looking to make the switch, and in recent weeks has heard from four other cities.

"We've been preaching it for a decade. Even if you don't opt to go with us and go with another company, it's worth looking into and getting it on a ballot so the residents can decide. The pricing is better on the whole, not to mention the other benefits," he says.

For example, Cincinnati's new deal with Akron-based First Energy Solutions promises power generation coming completely from renewable energy credits, including some power from the new solar canopy at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, customers can expect to save around $130 annual on their bill, say city officials.

Get Informed

The first step, adds Marshall, is getting informed. He points out that both PUCO and Duke have up-to-date information on their websites.

"Do your due diligence. All of the information is there, if you just look," he says.

Other tips for customers looking to make the switch:

"¢ Know who you're dealing with. Residents are probably already swamped with offers from companies, but not all may be accredited through PUCO. The commission maintains a list on its website of firms that have been vetted for reliability and tells you how to get in touch with them.

"¢ Compare and contrast. PUCO also maintains an "Apples to Apples" chart on its site, comparing rates from the main power companies to alternatives. The chart is updated monthly.

"¢ Ask questions. Any reputable company should be able to answer them. Are their rates fixed or do they change? Is there a fee to switch, or one to opt out of the contract early? Is there a budget plan? How will you be billed? PUCO also has suggested questions on its website.

"The Customer Choice program has been very popular," says Schilling. "Part of that is because all of the information that's available. We want to make sure that customers have everything they need before they make their decision." - 

For more information

Visit PUCO's website at www.puco.ohio.gov. The commission's "Apples to Apples" chart is at www.puco.ohio.gov/puco/index.cfm/apples-to-apples. PUCO also maintains a hotline at (800) 686-PUCO to handle inquiries.