Natural gas: It's worth making the calls

Friday, April 8, 2005

Once again, natural gas customers in McCook and other Nebraska towns are being given the opportunity to select which company they want to be their natural gas supplier.

In theory, the program can be a good deal for natural gas users as it allows them to shop around before they pick who they want to supply their gas. But, in fact, the majority of gas customers don't take the time or trouble to compare prices and, as a result, they are defaulted to their previous year supplier.

That can be costly. McCook City Councilman Phil Lyons says he talked with one man who saved $120 on his natural gas bill last year by calling natural gas suppliers for prices before making his selection.

Here's the way the choice program works. Each spring, natural gas customers are sent a choice selection sheet listing all the firms which wish to supply natural gas. Beside each potential supplier there is an 800 number which customers can call for that supplier's current rate for natural gas. Those rates vary, sometimes on a daily basis, said Lyons and Steve Haag, the manager of the Kinder-Morgan district office in McCook.

However, 60 percent of natural gas customers did not return selection forms last year. That is according to information which Lyons received at a meeting of the Public Alliance for Community Energy (ACE).

The lack of participation is understandable. It takes time to call the 800 numbers, with Lyons estimating four to ten minutes a day is required to call the potential suppliers for rate quotes. Also, it's difficult to understand exactly how the choice program works since Kinder Morgan does the billing and all the natural gas flows to customers through Kinder Morgan's lines.

As explained by Haag, the choice program has more to do with marketing than it does with supplying natural gas. Still, the rates and the potential savings are real. There is a difference between the rates charged by ACE, Kinder Morgan, One OK and other suppliers, and customers' choice of suppliers can make a difference in the price paid for natural gas.

When the natural gas selection list arrives in the mail, customers' first inclination may be to toss the forms into the trash. But, before doing so this year, it might pay to make a few 800 calls first. A little time and effort could result in lower costs on natural gas bills.

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