NW Natural set to lower rates this winter

Average residential customer would save 53 cents per month

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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Southwest Washington natural gas customers can expect to pay a little less to heat their homes and businesses this winter.

Portland-based Northwest Natural Gas Co. on Thursday filed an initial request with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to lower rates 0.8 percent for residential customers and 1 percent for commercial customers starting Nov. 1. That’s a savings of about 53 cents per month for the average homeowner using 59 therms or $3.01 per month on average for businesses.

“This heating season NW Natural customers will be paying about the same prices as they did in 2004,” Gregg Kantor, president and CEO of NW Natural, said in a statement. “We’re pleased we can offer this kind of value, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to hold down costs.”

Gas prices have continued to decline since falling dramatically in 2009 thanks to abundant new production from shale deposits, said Mike Parvinen, assistant director of energy at the WUTC.

By state law, those savings are passed on directly to customers.

NW Natural lowered rates 21.5 percent in Washington in 2009. The 2010 rate reduction is a fraction of last year’s savings, though it could be slightly larger by the time the utility files its final rate change request in October.

“Right now we’re seeing gas costs inching their way down so we may see further (rate) reductions,” Parvinen said. “Of course one good hurricane (in the Gulf of Mexico) can mess that up.”

Declining gas prices don’t mean lower profits for NW Natural, however.

The utility’s profit more than doubled to $6.9 million, or 26 cents per share, in the second quarter of 2010 compared with a year ago. Gas sales climbed due to colder-than-average weather and a slight increase in the number of new customers, according to the utility.

“The cost of gas is passed through to customers 100 percent so to the extent that they’re able to earn a profit, it’s because they’ve been able to control other costs,” Parvinen said.

NW Natural serves 61,768 residential customers and 5,119 commercial customers in Southwest Washington.