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Published: Friday, 2/10/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Utility bills to look different

Columbia Gas to inform customers about suppliers

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

If you're a customer of Columbia Gas of Ohio Inc., two months from now your natural gas bill will start bearing the name of a different gas supplier.

Beginning April 1, consumers who don't use an alternate gas supplier under Ohio's Customer Choice program -- that is, those who buy directly from Columbia Gas -- are going to be assigned to one of several alternate suppliers who sell gas in Columbia Gas' territory.

But there is no reason to worry or be upset. Since 2010, you likely were a customer of that alternate supplier. You just didn't know it.

And no matter which supplier you are assigned to, the price will not vary from supplier to supplier.

The upcoming change goes back to 2010 when the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio changed the way Columbia Gas calculated its price, switching from a monthly price in which expected higher or lower prices were factored in, to one where a fixed service fee is added to the month's end price of gas on the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) market. That price was known as Columbia Gas' Standard Service Offer.

The change lowered customers' monthly bills significantly, but almost overlooked in the process was an annual auction, approved by the PUCO, at which alternate suppliers made bids to supply sections of Columbia Gas' territory.

The suppliers provided gas at a fixed price to Columbia Gas, which distributed the gas to those customers and billed them for it.

"Really, in that sense, we stepped away from selling gas [to customers] two years ago," said Chris Kozak, a Columbia Gas spokesman.

The utility is moving away from directly selling gas to residential customers, but still will distribute gas, coordinate the auctions, maintain and repair pipelines, and perform its usual functions.

The key difference is that in April, the name on the monthly bill will more accurately reflect who has supplied a customer with gas the last two years, Matt Butler, a PUCO spokesman said.

"They'll be assigned a supplier in the sense that their supplier's name will appear on their bill. But really, it should be a seamless transition. People shouldn't notice any difference," Mr. Butler said.

For example, a new bill might bear the name MxEnergy, but "MxEnergy could have been the company that was supplying you with gas" under the system adopted in 2010, the PUCO spokesman said.

Also, Mr. Butler said, the monthly gas price, which now will be known as the Standard Choice Offer, will continue to be set the same way it has been since 2010.

A PUCO auction will be held Tuesday to allow suppliers to bid on sections of Columbia Gas' territory. The auction will reset the annual fixed service fee, which currently is 19 cents.

In April, gas prices will be a combination of the new service fee, plus the monthly Nymex price.

The changes only affect those customers who previously had not chosen an alternate supplier and who had remained with Columbia Gas. About 32 percent of customers in the utility's service territory get gas from Columbia Gas, with the rest using an alternate supplier.

Customers who have contracted with an alternate supplier are unaffected, as are customers who belong to a buying aggregation that has a contract with an alternate supplier.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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