March 25, 2016 - 12:21 AM EDT
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FirstEnergy quietly markets 'green offer'

March 25--A major selling point of FirstEnergy's new environmental branding campaign, "The Switch is On," invites customers to participate.

The

Akron, Ohio
-based energy company is giving residential customers in
Pennsylvania
the option to buy electricity directly from renewable sources through FirstEnergy Solutions, the company's retail electric supply business.

"Choose to have your energy powered by renewable energy from wind and hydro," the company urges. "The more customers who commit to wind power, the faster we can increase the supply of renewable energy and further reduce carbon emissions."

But FirstEnergy Solutions would disagree that more customers are a good thing. The company in 2014 stopped new sales to residential customers and allowed a large chunk of contracts to expire in early 2015. In October -- about a year later -- the company renewed the offer to residential customers, but it did so quietly and with the expectation that it would not attract as many customers as before.

"We're calling this a passive offer," said spokeswoman Diane Francis, meaning the company is not sending out direct mailings marketing the offer or advertising it on PA Power Switch, the state's official clearinghouse of electric suppliers on which companies list their offers, pricing and other details. "We're not expecting an onslaught of customers."

The discrepancy between FirstEnergy's marketing campaigns underscores the difficulty in presenting a full picture of a sprawling energy company that owns power plants, transmission lines and six distribution utilities, including West Penn Power. In reality, FirstEnergy has a more nuanced environmental record and faces critics who contend it lags near the bottom on green initiatives.

"I think a lot of utility companies are able to describe these programs they have underway ... but there's some gap, some missing step between those programs and actually embracing and facilitating change," said Stu Dalheim, vice president of Shareholder Advocacy at Calvert Asset Management Company Inc.

The

Maryland
-based investment company brought forth a resolution at FirstEnergy's shareholders meeting last May that disputed the company's record and demanded it adopt carbon reduction goals.That resolution wasn't adopted, but the firm is now involved in a similar shareholder resolution this year that asks the company to disclose financial losses that could be incurred from closing its coal facilities in the face of environmental regulations.

FirstEnergy ranks near the bottom among power companies on sales of renewable energy and energy efficiency savings, according to a 2014 study from

Ceres
, a
Boston
-based nonprofit that monitors business leadership on sustainability goals, and Clean Edge, a
San Francisco
-based clean-tech research firm.

The report found 2 percent of FirstEnergy's retail electric sales in 2012 came from renewable sources, while electric savings from efficiency programs that year were also about 2 percent. By both measures, FirstEnergy ranks slightly below

Columbus, Ohio
-based rival American Electric Power.

The goal of the campaign is independent of shareholder resolutions, wrote Jennifer Young, spokeswoman for FirstEnergy's Generation and Environmental Communications, in an email. At the campaign's outset, the company announced it would by 2045 cut carbon emissions from its power fleet by 90 percent below 2005 levels. The company has already cut emission by 25 percent since 2005, she said.

"Like many others, we believe in a cleaner energy future, and this goal reflects a shift in our long-term strategy," Ms. Young said. "The switch to a cleaner energy future cannot happen overnight, but we're making the transition customers want to see."

FirstEnergy Solutions' decision last fall to begin enrolling residential customers is a quick turnabout, particularly for a company its size.

The company had paused new customer acquisition in August 2014, calling its growing residential and small-business customers too risky because their energy use sways the most due to changing weather. Earlier that year, electric suppliers were battered by the polar vortex, a period of historically cold weather that caused power prices to spike.

Ms. Francis said the company decided to accept new residential customers last fall after re-evaluating its customer distribution and hearing from customers who wanted to enroll.

"When you're talking about being a green company, it makes perfect sense to have a green offer," Ms. Francis said. Still, she added, the company does not expect an unmanageable amount of customers.

"If we get to a point where we need to stop accepting new customers, we have the option of adjusting or removing offers," she said. "We really don't see that happening."

Daniel Moore: [email protected], 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

___

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Source: Equities.com News (March 25, 2016 - 12:21 AM EDT)

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