Natural-gas prices have begun to moderate after a late-January shock that pushed central Ohio bills to their highest level since 2009.
The recent spike was the result of an unusually cold winter, not a sign of a sustained price increase, so gas customers should not panic, analysts say.
“This is one of the worst winters we’ve ever had,” said Robert Bellinski, an energy analyst for Morningstar. “Nobody really saw it coming.”
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Columbia Gas of Ohio customers are paying a regulated price of 61.4 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas, a figure that does not include taxes or fees. This translates into a bill of $125.82 for the average Columbia household, including taxes and fees.
The price is down from a peak of 68.4 cents per 100 cubic feet last month, but it remains high compared with the past few years. As recently as November, the price was less than 50 cents.
“There’s not much I can do about it,” said Alvin McCall, 38, of the West Side. His most-recent bill for a small house was $235, a number so high that he admitted having uttered “a few choice words.”
“I’m just glad to see the weather warm up,” he said.
The regulated price changes each month, rising and falling based on the market price of gas.
Customers also have the option to get gas from independent suppliers that offer a variety of pricing options, including fixed prices. When prices are rising or volatile, the suppliers will use this in solicitations to emphasize the security of a locked-in price.
Current fixed-price offers range from a high of 85 cents, for a six-month contract with North American Power and Gas, to a low of about 62 cents from several suppliers, according to www.energychoice.ohio.gov. All those prices are higher than the current regulated price.
The key to saving money with a fixed price is signing up before a price spike — a time that has passed.
“There is a possibility that some people who entered into fixed rates last summer were in the money this winter,” said Bruce Hayes, regulatory analyst for the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the state’s utility advocate.
Looking ahead to next winter, he thinks the rising supply of gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations will help to keep prices in check.
Gas companies will need to tap this supply, and other domestic sources, because the winter has severely depleted the volume of gas in storage.
Last week, the government reported storage inventory of 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, down 49 percent from this time last year.
Before companies can replenish their storage, they need to get through the final days of a heating season that has been unusually long and severe.
“The first question is, ‘How much longer will this winter last?’” Bellinski said.
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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