Utility bills down a bit in 2013
West Virginia utility customers are paying less for utilities this year than in 2012, according to a new report from the state Public Service Commission's Consumer Advocate Division.
Residential utility customers across the state saw their average monthly payments drop last year by $15.59, according to the Consumer Advocate Division's latest annual report on residential utility rates.
According to the report, an average utility ratepayer in West Virginia paid $292.81 each month for electricity, gas, water, and telephone service in January 2012.
That same customer is now paying $277.22 - a decline of 5.3 percent.
But the decline was driven by one commodity: natural gas.
While average water, power and telephone rates stayed flat in 2012, the state's five major gas companies saw their rates decline by 10 to 16 percent.
The good news for those who heat their homes with natural gas is that the trend is expected to continue.
"For natural gas, the future looks pretty good," Consumer Advocate Division Director Byron Harris said. "By all accounts we have an enormous resource that's being tapped relatively cheaply compared to historic prices."
That stable future will be important for West Virginia consumers because declining gas rates have helped offset some sharp increases in water and power rates.
Since 2008, West Virginia's average electricity rates jumped 38.4 percent, and water rates increased 35.5 percent.
Meanwhile, natural gas rates have dropped 41 percent since their peak in 2009.
Also helping in 2012 was the fact that it was the first time in five years that overall power rates did not increase.
But Harris said consumers shouldn't get used to that.
"The fact that from January of last year to January this year rates declined or didn't go up, that's a great thing," Harris said. "But I fear it's just a pause.
"For 2013, we have some very large cases that are going to impact rates," he said.
The Public Service Commission is already considering requests from First Energy and Appalachian Power to approve billion-dollar power plant purchases. Harris said those purchases will likely lead to higher rates.
Also, Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power are working to securitize close to $400 million worth of outstanding fuel costs, mostly caused by increases in coal prices since 2009.
"Unfortunately, most of the signs are not real positive for electricity," Harris said.
Local water customers likely will see their bills go up in the near future as well.
West Virginia American Water has filed for a nearly 20 percent increase in local water rates. The PSC is set to rule on that case sometime this year.
That would lead to an increase in what is already one of the highest municipal water rates in the country.
West Virginia American customers pay about $50.50 for 4,500 gallons of water. By comparison, Morgantown residents pay just $17.42.
Harris said water rates vary widely, mainly due to the nature of the water system.
"Municipals do have a bit of an advantage in that they are serving a relatively compact area," he said. "Morgantown only serves the city of Morgantown, compared to West Virginia American, which is Boone County, and Fayette County and etc.
"It's much more dispersed in territory," he said.
Of the in-state areas studied by the Consumer Advocate Division, Logan residents enjoy the lowest total utility rates, while Bluefield customers pay the highest.
Logan residents pay an average of $262.67 per month for electricity, gas, water and telephone service. Those same services in Bluefield would cost $295.66.
Charleston resident fall in the middle, paying an average of $287.98 per month on utilities.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.