CourierPostOnline

Utility Offers Energy Credit, But Tri-County Area Left Out For Now

CourierPostOnline — Thursday, February 2, 2006

By BILL DUHART
Courier-Post
Staff

It may be a sign of good things to come, but it won't be coming to mailboxes in the tri-county region anytime soon.

New Jersey Natural Gas, an energy supplier in central New Jersey, is giving its customers a credit in February and March for rate hikes it was granted last fall. The refund is a result of higher than normal temperatures this winter and reduced demand for gas to heat homes.

The bad news is that none of the 462,000 New Jersey Natural Gas customers live in Burlington, Camden or Gloucester counties and utilities that serve the tri-county area do not intend to follow New Jersey Natural Gas in offering a credit this winter.

The good news is there is an existing mechanism to refund overpayments to all natural gas customers throughout the state, but it usually doesn't kick in until mid-summer.

Energy companies are required to publicly report each June if their estimated cost to purchase gas is in line with what consumers are charged. Sometimes refunds are granted. Other times, rate increases are needed for utilities to recover their actual cost.

If New Jersey Natural Gas is any indication, this year many consumers could be in line for a refund.

"We've been able to provide this credit because the weather has been warmer than normal and customers have been using less natural gas," said Michael Kinney, a spokesman for New Jersey Natural Gas. "As a result, the market price is down and we've been able to offer a credit to customers."

The typical customer will receive about $61, Kenny said.

Officials from PSE&G and South Jersey Gas, which have 2 million customers between them and provide all of the natural gas for South Jersey, said their companies do not intend to issue a refund at this time.

"We are not going to move to do any rollback now," said Joanne Brigandi of South Jersey Gas. "We still have quite a bit of winter left."

Karen Johnson, of PSE&G, agreed with Brigandi.

"We need to make sure we're not collecting too much or too little," Johnson said. "We do have two more months of potential cold weather. We're not in a position of offer a credit at this time."

All of the gas company officials stressed that rate hikes last fall were just to pass on the cost of spiking wholesale energy costs. Three of four utilities serving the state were granted rate increases of close to 25 percent in December. PSE&G, with 1.7 million customers, nearly twice as many as the other three combined, had a 15.4 percent increase in December on top of a 10 percent increase in September.

The companies made no profit on the increases, said Seema Singh, the state ratepayer advocate and director. But she said New Jersey Natural Gas should be commended for crediting customers during the heating season.

"I applaud them," Singh said. "It's good news for consumers, but we still have several more months to go and natural gas prices can be volatile."

Ev Liebman, program director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group, said rebates are good but much more needs to be done.

"It's certainly a relief," Liebman said. "But it's not long-term relief."

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