Columbia Gas of Ohio customers to see $20 in fixed charge increases over 5 years
On Thursday, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved Columbia Gas of Ohio's request to raise its fixed-monthly cost from $36 a month to nearly $60 a month over the next five years for residential users.
The fixed monthly charge is incurred before a customer uses any natural gas. Consumers are expected to see the new charges starting in May.
The approval from the commission comes after Columbia Gas and several utility-focused advocacy groups agreed to a negotiated agreement in November, though other advocacy groups disputed several aspects of that agreement.
One of those groups, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, is still upset. The policy center's senior attorney Robert Kelter, stated in an email that the increase will disproportionately hurt people with low incomes. “ELPC is very disappointed in the commission’s decision today. Raising the fixed customer charge to $58 per month guarantees utility profits at the expense of consumers. It particularly hurts low-income customers who typically use less gas. The commission made matters worse by also approving Columbia’s cancellation of all but one low-income energy efficiency program that helps customers lower bills. This decision will cause many customers to face increased difficulties paying their bills.”
The PUCO commissioners did modify the agreement to require Columbia Gas to fund the full $3.5 million bill-pay assistance program for low-income users, instead of having customers pay a fee to fund part of it.
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the increase. Commission Chair Jenifer French said the negotiations led to a fair increase. "The settlement agreement in this case is a reasonable resolution that balances impacts to monthly bills, while supporting utility investments in safety and economic development programs," she said.
The agreement the commissioners approved stated they are aware of the "hundreds of customer comments filed in this proceeding opposing the rate increase proposed by Columbia."
The agreement also stated, "...the vast majority of comments, as well as the testimony at the five local public hearings held in this case, demonstrate understandable concern for any rate increase at this time, rather than a specific concern for rate design. The commission appreciates the concerns of ratepayers over any increase in rates during this period of global inflation and high natural gas commodity prices."
The ELPC also finds a fault with the agreement for cutting energy efficiency programs.
The Ohio Consumers' Counsel supported the agreement. When it was first announced, they issued a statement claiming the elimination of Columbia's energy efficiency program for customers who are not considered low income would lead to savings of about $110 million over five years as the charges are ended.
Columbia Gas' original request to raise rates in 2021 would have increased the monthly rate to about $80 a month. They wanted to increase its fees to generate an additional $212 million each year from Ohio customers. This proposal generates less than that, that total being about $68 million. That is more than an initial report from state regulators and consumer advocates suggested the increase should be.
Under the deal, Columbia Gas is also expected to provide a "convenient online way for consumers to stop Columbia from sharing their personal contact information with energy marketers."
In a statement, Columbia Gas of Ohio states the increase "reflects the costs necessary to continue providing safe, affordable, reliable natural gas service," and that it'' initial amount to an increase of less than $4.
"The settlement also gives Columbia the authority to invest in system upgrades and continuously improve the safety and reliability of our infrastructure. These investments, which the Commission must review and approve, could result in small increases not to exceed a total fixed charge of $56.51 in 2028. Rates could be less than this, depending upon the level of capital investments in Columbia's system to improve safety and reliability over the next five years," according to Columbia Gas of Ohio.