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Warmer winter -- if not weather -- lies ahead

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although winter heating costs are expected to rise slightly throughout much of the nation this year, officials with state agencies and utilities say m West Virginians shouldn't see a big jump.

Jackie Lake Roberts, consumer advocate director at the state Public Service Commission, does not believe utility rates will rise sharply this winter or next year.

"I am not seeing anything on the horizon that is big," Roberts said this week.

During the past decade, changes in annual average utility rates in West Virginia varied, according to the PSC Consumer Advocate Division.

For example, state utility rates increased by 16 percent in 2003 and by 11.5 percent in 2004. Utility rates dropped by 4.2 percent in 2007, then rose again by 15.6 percent in 2008.

But recently, rates have been stable.

"I tend to agree with that analysis. There will not be a great upheaval," said Raamie Barker, senior advisor to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

"Certainly, there will be some utilities that will seek some kind of increase. Usually, they seek increases because their costs are increasing. It seems like things are trending down in the energy business right now," Barker said.

"We don't know what kind of winter we are going to have," Barker added. "So we don't know how much heat we will need. If you need more heat, you will burn more coal or gas.

"For consumers, we hope there will be a mild winter. Investors in utilities are hoping against us. I just hope we don't have any major storms that cause a lot of damage."

Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that more than 90 percent of the 116 million homes in the United States would pay more for winter heating this year than last year. They projected homes that heat with natural gas would pay 13 percent more, homes with propane would pay 9 percent more, and homes with electric heat would pay 2 percent more.

But even with the increase in natural gas prices from last winter, the projected cost for this winter is lower than the average of the previous five winters, according to the EIA.

"We are not expecting a big jump in prices in the natural gas market during the next year," said Moses G. Skaff, senior vice president for Mountaineer Gas.

"In the wintertime, sales of our product are basically driven by the weather. The more people use, the more expenses they will have," Skaff said.

"We never thought we would see electric companies going to natural gas to generate power," Skaff said. "The use of coal is dropping. Right now, consumers using natural gas have pretty much of a bargain compared to those using other utilities."

Customers can help cut energy bills by making sure their homes have good insulation and their furnaces are properly maintained, said Larry Meador, Mountaineer Gas' manager of business development and communications.

The PSC's Consumer Advocate Division releases an annual report about how much West Virginians pay in utility bills.

During 2012, statewide utility rates for residential customers dropped by an average of 5.3 percent. Monthly payments declined from $293 in January 2012 to $277 in January 2013.

Those rates calculated by the CAD include the combined costs of electricity, natural gas, water and basic telephone service.

Jeri Matheney, communications director for Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, said, "Rates went down for our customers on Sept. 1 and they'll stay there.

"Every year, we file for an adjustment [in rates] based on our winter fuel costs. That is ruled on about July 1. This past year, it went down," Matheney said. "I can't predict what it might be [this winter], but I expect rates to be fairly stable for the next year.

In 2012, the average rates for natural gas, telephone and water services were higher in West Virginia than in surrounding states -- Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

"However, the higher cost of these services was more than offset by West Virginia's lower electricity rates," the CAD report states.

In 2012, most West Virginians benefited from "the declining cost of natural gas that utilities purchase to serve their customers."

Between 2000 and 2008, natural gas rates for residents more than doubled, reaching a peak in January 2009, when the average monthly gas bill was nearly $200.

By early 2013, the CAD report states, monthly gas rates dropped to $116, "but there is no guarantee that prices will remain at this level in the future."

During 2012, for the first time in five years, West Virginia's two major electric utilities -- Appalachian Power Company and Monongahela Power Company -- saw their rates drop or remain stable.

Low-income households can help pay their winter heating bills through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), administered by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The program is funded through a federal block grant.

People who want to determine whether they are eligible for LIEAP benefits and/or apply for those benefits, can get an application form on the DHHR website at wvinroads.org/inroads. They can also call 1-800-642-8589.

People interested in getting tips about how to save on their utility costs can look at the PSC Consumer Advocate Division site at: cad.state.wv.us/Money%20Savings%20Tips.htm.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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