• 50°

Natural gas bills expected to rise because of arctic February temperatures

Freeborn County natural gas users should expect the bills to heat their homes to increase as a result of February’s arctic blast and ensuing supply issues.

The potential upside is that any impact won’t be viewed on those billing statements until the fall.

Minnesota Energy Resources supplies about 10,000 homes and businesses in Freeborn County with natural gas. Brendan Conway is a media relations manager for WEC Energy Group, the parent company of Minnesota Energy.

Reliability is the focus for the company in winter months, according to Conway.

“We work to make sure we have access to multiple reliable sources of natural gas to keep our customers warm,” he said. “Despite the very cold weather last month, we were able to provide natural gas to all of our customers.”

For six days in February, the high temperature didn’t clear 0 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. For another seven days, the lows fell below 0 in February.

That blast of cold air stretched all the way to Texas, stretching supplies of natural gas between corporate customers across the country. As a result, pass-through rates for business and residential customers will increase.

Few know how much.

At a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission meeting last month, officials with Xcel and Centerpoint — two of the state’s largest natural gas utilities — said they spent up to six times as much for gas during the cold stretch.

Where Xcel anticipated spending $50 per customer on natural gas in February, “we’re preliminarily thinking that we incurred about $300 per residential customer to procure that natural gas to serve them,” Amy Liberkowski, Xcel’s director of regulatory pricing and analysis. That was according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio.

The PUC unanimously voted “to launch an investigation into the economic impact of the natural gas price spike” and “examine the impact of the national spike in prices on customers and the state’s gas utilities,” according to a release.

Additionally, the PUC was concerned about testimony that indicated some natural gas firms paid as much as 50 times the average rate during the cold spell.

Conway, with Minnesota Energy Resources, said his company was still working on its internal math.

“Like most other Minnesota utilities, due to the nationwide spike in natural gas prices and the bitter cold weather last month, we expect many customers will see a bill impact,” he said. “We are still finalizing the cost impact for individual customers from the increased natural gas prices.” 

He added that those increases will likely “be in line with what the consumers of other Minnesota utilities will experience.”

Those increases won’t take effect until September. Conway said for Minnesota Energy Resources customers, those increases will be spread over the next year.

Additionally, the PUC could force the utilities to spread them over an even longer period.

Minnesota Energy Resources has information about available assistance programs, including the state program that is administered by the Department of Commerce.

State officials last week announced an increase in available emergency assistance. That help is limited to a first-come, first-serve basis, and the application deadline is May. A limited number of grants are available.

The Attorney General’s office acts as the consumer advocacy group at the state level. Complaints and concerns, including price-gouging complaints, about utility companies are handled there.

The PUC meets weekly on Thursdays. Agendas for its next two meetings do not set aside time to discuss February’s cold weather impact on the state’s natural gas providers and consumers.