By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
State consumers, on average, saved money on their utility bills during 2012, according to a study by the Consumer Advocate Division of the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.
“Our job is to represent customers in proceedings before the Public Service Commission,” said Byron Harris, director of the Consumer Advocate Division, which is an independent division of the PSC.
He explained that the division tries to make sure that there aren’t any utility rate increases, or that any rate increases that are needed for gas, water, telephone or electric services are as low as possible.
The Consumer Advocate Division recently released its annual residential utility rate report. Since its inception in 1981, the division has been required to file a report with the Legislature each year, Harris said.
He said the division conducts a survey of 17 cities in West Virginia to find out their gas, phone, electric and water rates, and keeps a comparison of which cities are higher and lower in the state and how the largest cities have changed over time. The staff compares West Virginia’s seven largest cities to a city from each surrounding state, including Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pa., Baltimore, Md., Richmond, Va., and Lexington, Ky.
The utility rates in the report were calculated based on the average usage of residential consumers per month, including 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, 13,000 cubic feet of gas in the winter, and 4,500 gallons of water. In terms of telephone, the Consumer Advocate Division determined the average rate using comparative plans for the different states, Harris said.
The total utility bills for households in West Virginia dropped by 5.3 percent, going from $292.81 in January 2012 to $277.22 right now. He said this decline was really driven by the electricity and natural gas rates.
Of the state’s two largest utility companies, Appalachian Power’s electricity rates stayed the same compared to the previous year, and Mon Power’s rates went down. The natural gas rates for all gas utility companies decreased, Harris said.
Since 2008, the state’s electric rates have gone up by 38.4 percent and the water rates have risen by 35.5 percent. But the 29.7 percent decline in natural gas rates has counteracted the growing electric and water rates during that time period. Telephone rates have stayed the same.
In previous years, the overall rates were focused on the fact that natural gas was going up, which shows a big change, Harris said.
In January 2013, the city of Logan was found to have the cheapest utility rates in West Virginia, at $262.67 per month. Bluefield residents are paying the highest rates, at $295.66. The difference in these costs is 12.6 percent.
“The cost of natural gas and water were the main factors responsible for the disparity in rates within West Virginia,” the report states.
The report also found that the utility rates for West Virginia residents are typically lower than cities in surrounding states. West Virginia’s average rate for all utilities was $277.22 a month, compared to the average of $293.89 for the five out-of-state cities that the study examined.
“Even though our electricity rates have gone up quite a bit, we are still on average lower than surrounding states,” Harris said. “The gas, telephone and water rates are plus or minus about $3, relatively close to each other. The real difference is the electricity rates.”
Among the total rates for West Virginia’s seven largest cities, Martinsburg was the lowest at $264.21, and Fairmont was the highest at $288.17.
In terms of the cities studied in surrounding states, the costs were $234.32 in Lexington, Ky., $272.40 in Columbus, Ohio, $296.15 in Richmond, Va., $315.72 in Baltimore, Md., and $350.85 in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“The future still looks pretty good for natural gas rates because of all of the shale production,” Harris said of West Virginia. “There’s a lot of pressure on electricity rates. There are a number of big trends that are impacting electricity adversely, so that’s what we’re going to continue to struggle with not only in 2013 but probably beyond.”
To access the full report, visit the Consumer Advocate Division online at www.cad.state.wv.us.
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.