Correction: The “by the numbers” box with this story, which appeared on page 10A, should have said AmerenUE wants to increase the customer service part of bills from $9 to $16 per month; the Missouri Public Service Commission wants an increase from $9 to $10.20. For the commodity charge, AmerenUE is asking for an increase from 19.56 cents to 35.066 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas. The PSC wants to increase the commodity charge to 27 cents. This online edition story has been changed to fit the correction.
There is a $10.55 difference of opinion between state regulators and AmerenUE on how much to increase monthly bills for natural gas.
The utility wants to raise rates to increase the average gas bill by $16.26, but the staff of the state’s Public Service Commission recommends an increase that would make the average customer’s bill only $5.71 more each month.
Up with cost
AmerenUE, which provides natural gas in Columbia, has asked for permission to increase the fixed customer service charge from $9 to $16 a month and wants to increase the commodity charge from 19.56 cents to 35.066 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas. The commodity charge is based on amount of natural gas a customer uses.
These increases would be phased in over two years.
The staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission, however, is recommending immediately increasing the customer charge to $10.20 and increasing the commodity charge to 27 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas. AmerenUE will respond to the staff’s recommendation in December.
The utility estimates its request would generate annual revenues of $26.7 million; the commission thinks additional annual revenue should be about $11 million.
The staff based its recommendation on an intensive audit, commission staff said.
Reasoning for increase
“Staff did find that AmerenUE’s rate base had increased as a result of significant investments, including pipeline upgrades and additions. A thorough review of all revenues and expenses showed that some level of an increase is appropriate,” said Warren Wood, Public Service Commission Energy Department manager.
The Office of Public Counsel, which represents utility consumers, conducted an audit of its own. It suggested Ameren earn about $1.5 million more in annual revenue than the Public Service Commission recommended.
This difference reflects the amount of money the Office of Public Counsel recommended shareholders receive on their investments.
AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary said the utility is seeking to increase the customer charge and the commodity charge to pay for infrastructure expansion costs and to please investors by maintaining a decent profit on Ameren investments. He declined to comment on the staff’s recommendation until the utility formally responds in December.
The fourth party in this case, the Department of Natural Resources, intervened when AmerenUE did not include weatherization funding in the rate request.
“Ameren has provided approximately $125,000 for low-income weatherization services for each of the past five years,” said Anita Randolph, director of the Energy Center at the Department of Natural Resources.
Weatherization funds are distributed to local agencies for free energy audits and home improvements for the elderly, poor and people with disabilities. Although Missouri receives federal funds for a weatherization program, demand for such services outstrips supply.
“Federal funding is not sufficient to help all elderly, low-income and disabled people,” said Brenda Wilbers, director of energy policy and analysis for the resources agency.
The parties in the rate case may come to an agreement as early as this winter, according to commission spokesman Kevin Kelly.
The last non-gas rate request filed by AmerenUE was in 2000. The commission approved an increase of $4.2 million.
Customers are already seeing higher gas bills. On Nov. 1, the commission approved a gas price adjustment that is higher than last winter’s because the price of gas is now higher. The commission estimates that an average Columbia resident will see a 7 percent to 10 percent increase in monthly gas bills over last winter, assuming this winter is comparable weather-wise.