Sunday, September 26, 2010

Consumers Reap Benefit of Low Gas Price

What consumers want from their utilities is pretty basic: a reliable supply at a good price.
So Americans are more satisfied with their natural-gas companies, as one might expect.
Natural gas is almost completely free of the outages that plague electricity (which seem to have increased in the past couple of years).
And natural gas prices have dropped and stayed low since 2008, resulting in lower bills simply because the utilities are paying less for wholesale natural gas.
J.D. Power’s annual survey of residential customer satisfaction with gas utilities found it increased for 70 of the 75 companies ranked. The average score rose from 616 to 629.
That’s pretty remarkable for a year in which consumers are suffering the effects of the worst recession since the Depression.
Southern New Jersey residents seem especially pleased with their natural gas providers.
South Jersey Gas and New Jersey Natural Gas each were the highest-rated utilities in their size categories in the East.
South Jersey Gas scored 634 in the survey by J.D. Power and Associates, which is based on more than 61,000 responses nationwide. The average score for such midsized gas utilities was 617.
New Jersey Natural Gas did even better, with a score of 649, compared to 615 for fellow N.J. utility Public Service Electric & Gas and the average for large utilities of 612.
J.D. Power cited favorable prices and fewer expected price increases as customer-pleasing factors.
Natural gas wholesale prices are less than half what they were earlier in the decade.
It may be hard to believe now, but in 2002 it cost twice as much to heat with natural gas as it did with oil. Even propane — propane! — was 40 percent cheaper than natural gas then.
That all changed in 2007 when a big new pipeline started bringing natural gas from the Rocky Mountains eastward and the clean-burning fuel once again became less expensive than its rivals.
That year also began a remarkable increase in U.S. natural gas supplies as vast reserves were found in shale formations and production jumped 9 percent. The next year, output grew even more.
As a consequence, natural gas prices are expected to remain low relative to other forms of energy for a long time.
That’s good news for customers hooked up to gas lines, and also for those who have been given that opportunity for the first time by expansion of the service area of South Jersey Gas, particularly in Cape May County.
The other big driver of increased satisfaction with gas utilities is related to costs, with an environmental component as well.
The survey said the average score for corporate citizenship jumped 11 percent from last year, with 28 percent of respondents saying they were familiar with their utility’s energy savings programs, up from 21 percent in 2009.
The study also measured companies on billing and payment, communications, customer service and field service.
There’s not much to be happy about in the economy these days, but natural gas is giving consumers a break — at least those who can connect to it.

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