Door-to-Door Eco-Robbery

I’m mad. About light bulbs – and customer “service”.

Let me explain why, with a parable.

Let’s say you lived in a fairly well-off neighborhood. Everyone is now gearing up for the holidays – decorations are coming out, lights and displays are appearing…and, of course, the stores have been running sales since Halloween. It’s another American Christmas season.

One day you go out to check the mail, and lo and behold, someone has hung a Christmas wreath on your door. It’s decorated with sparkly balls that have smiley faces. And with it is a note from your mortgage company, explaining that latest studies have shown that Christmas wreaths lead to a 15% increase in overall societal happiness – in light of that, they are delivering wreaths to every one of their customers because…well, who can question such a good cause?

Even the president, and all the in-vogue politicos, have been mandating happiness measures. So it must be right.

You look to your left, and see that a wreath is hanging on the Goldblum’s front door. And to your right, on the Al-Mahdi”s door – another wreath. You think that perhaps your Jewish and Muslim neighbors might not approve of this gesture – and furthermore, you have your own favorite wreath already and don’t particularly care for this one hand-delivered to you without your consent.

It takes some work, but you do your digging and find out that this “free” wreath (worth about $17.00) is actually going to cost you $75.00, paid for on your mortgage bill, spread out in monthly payments over three years. WHAT? You’re going to be ripped off for something you didn’t ask for, don’t want, and perhaps even don’t believe in?? An outrage!

Far-fetched? Not at all. Let’s just change a few details, and you’ll know why I’m mad.

In Ohio, the First Energy Utility has taken upon itself to deliver unasked-for compact fluorescent light bulbs (the kind with mercury in them) to its millions of customers – and is charging them a pretty penny for the privilege. Now, these supposedly high-efficiency bulbs have gained the imprimatur of the eco-politically-correct crowd, and the utility feels that it must impose these bulbs on its customers.

    The utility will charge average users 60 cents a month extra on their electric bills for the next three years — $21.60 all together. That covers the cost of the bulbs ($3.50 each), their delivery and the delivery of the power consumers would have used if they didn’t have them…but the company — and therefore you — are paying too much for the bulbs, said Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. A five-pack of similar bulbs costs $13.99 from Ace Hardware’s Web site.

Beside the fact that the program is a form of robbery, what really irks is the fact that people are not being left with the freedom to make their own choices, based on intelligent shopping, personal conviction, and genuine need. And if you look at the reactions, this exercise in eco-bludgeoning is creating a firestorm (see here and here). I’ll just extract two comments:

    How is it even legal for any company to require customers to pay for items they neither ordered nor wanted? If CEI is allowed to get away with its lightbulb plan, it will set a very dangerous precedent.
    $21 for 2 lightbulbs? Not fair to anyone except possibly the workers getting paid to deliver them. I just purchased a package of 12 of these for less than $21. That means I have changed out all my bulbs and already have cut my electric consumption. Why didn’t they just mail coupons for a couple bulbs in our bills if they were serious about us cutting our consumption. Oh that’s right, it was a mandate so they wanted to insure they kept profits the same with generating output lowered. I think I’ll tell the boss I want the same pay and I’ll work at least 10% less, lets see what they say. It’s a bad deal and I’m tired of everyone reaching in my wallet without my permission.

Now, I don’t live in Ohio – so what’s my beef? Well, a few days ago I heard that the green-shirted volunteers were in our neighborhood here in NJ, and what did I find on my doorknob? Two unrequested and unwanted bulbs.

On Saturday, I went onto the NJ Clean Energy website and left the following (with my e-mail):

    We just had 2 (unrequested) Project Porchlight light bulbs hand-delivered to our door. I would like to know:
    1. What I am being charged for this, one-time and monthly,
    2. The actual bulk cost of one of these bulbs on the open market,
    3. What you are paying for this program, per household

Thank you.

On Monday, two e-mails drop into my InBox, from a person who will remain unnamed. One was inadvertently copied to me, the other was one of those futile “Would like to recall that last e-mail” messages (oops – too late!). In it, my message was sent to a handful of internal people for consideration, with the following note:

Do you have any suggestions on answering the below.  Not sure if you have/want to give them detail.  I can cover with the general explanation about the SBC charge and how NJCEP is funded, but want to run it by you……

Now, frankly, I’m not interested in general explanations about how the NJ Clean Energy Program is funded. Here is an explanation of the Society Benefits Charge (SBC) which already consumes 3% of our bill. What I want to know is if I am being charged even more for something I neither want (I do have a problem with these mercury-containing bulbs) nor have asked for. And I want to know the numbers if I and other NJ residents are being gouged like our fellow citizens in Ohio.

Whatever you may think of green initiatives, various types of bulbs, and the like, that’s not the issue here. This is an issue of having something shoved down our throats due to an in-vogue agenda, and being charged for the privilege. I don’t care whether it’s wreaths or bulbs – it’s just wrong.

We called the utility and, after long delays getting to anyone who could even address the issue, someone said they’d come get the bulbs back. Fine. But I still await an answer about the costs of this program to those of us who are being serviced by the utility. I’ll let you know what we find out.

Update: here is the e-mail response from the utility:

As I mentioned, I had to go to several sources top to see what numbers are available to you that may answer your specific questions.

  • As previously mentioned, the bulbs were delivered by local volunteers so there is no direct cost to you for that.
  • CFL open market costs vary by retailer and type. To give you an idea we offer a 14 watt CFL for $.95 through our online store.
  • As also mentioned, the overall funding for NJCEP is through the Societal Benefits Charge (SBC) that the main gas and electric utilities companies charge (not municipality owned utilities).  The charge can be found on your utility bill each month.  If you are unable to locate it, I would suggest you contact your electric utility company to find out what the monthly charge is.

To give you an idea, in 2008, an average residential electric utility customer contributed approximately $18 to fund these programs and an average residential gas utility customer contributed approximately $14.

The 2009 budget for the Energy Efficient Products Program is $23,315,444.  That budget supports several initiatives, including discounted ENERGY STAR lighting in retail stores like Home Depot and Lowes, incentives on clothes washers, room air conditioners and dehumidifiers, an on-line energy audit, a refrigerator recycling program and activities related to the Green NJ Resource Team of which Project Porchlight is a member.   If you wish to look at further the NJCEP’s 2009 Budget Filing can be found on our website and there is a specific section on ENERGY STAR ® Products to help you get a better understanding of the overall budget for this portion of NJCEP.

–If I’m reading this correctly, this bulb drop-off initiative is a component of a larger program, which we have no choice but to pay for, for various green initiatives, including Project Porchlight. The cost of this aspect of the program appears not to be publicly disclosed as a line item. I really wonder if a voucher program would not have been far more effective and customer-focused – providing discount vouchers for any type of energy-conserving bulb, if desired, purchased at market price somewhere instead of having people hand-deliver something that may or may not be desired or a good “match” for customer lighting needs.

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