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Liberty Utilities’s natural-gas customers set to see higher bills this winter

Rising natural gas prices could cause heating bills to increase more than 10 percent this winter for Liberty Utilities’s 87,000 gas customers in New Hampshire, including 10,700 in Concord.

“Pretty much it’s supply and demand,” said utility spokesman John Shore. “Demand each year has been increasing, and it’s based not just on residential and commercial usage but also . . . a lot of electric utilities’ generating facilities are using gas to power their systems. So that’s a big part of it, and in New England, we have a pretty limited interstate pipeline system to bring that gas to us.”

Liberty, which provides natural gas service in central and southern New Hampshire, filed paperwork last week with the Public Utilities Commission proposing new rates for this winter. The PUC hasn’t ruled on the request, a process that last year took two months.

For the typical residential customer, Liberty estimated heating bills will total $874.92 from Nov. 1 through April under the new rates. That’s up $82.45, or 10.4 percent, compared with last winter.

For commercial and industrial customers, heating bills are estimated to increase between 10.1 percent and 12.7 percent depending on use, the utility said.

That’s a big change from a year ago, when Liberty proposed – and the PUC approved – initial winter rates estimated to lower the average residential customer’s heating bill by 8.8 percent compared with the previous winter. At the time, the utility credited the falling price of natural gas.

“2012 was really unusual in terms of natural gas prices,” said Katherine Teller, an economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “We had such abundant natural gas and we had such a warm winter. That brought prices down.”

Now, Teller said, “We’ve seen supply and demand balance out a little more, and prices have reflected that.”

For this winter, Liberty has proposed charging New Hampshire residential customers a cost-of-gas rate of $0.8895 per therm starting Nov. 1. That’s 32.4 percent more than last winter’s approved rate of $0.61719 per therm – though that initial rate increased as natural gas prices rose last winter, hitting a peak rate of $0.8215 per therm starting in March.

A subsidiary of Ontario-based Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., Liberty Utilities spent $285 million to buy National Grid’s electric and gas businesses in New Hampshire. The deal closed in July 2012.

Liberty’s gas business, officially called EnergyNorth Natural Gas Inc., has nearly 87,000 customers including 10,700 in Concord, 26,000 in Manchester and 27,000 in Nashua. It operates in southern and central New Hampshire and in the North Country city of Berlin.

It’s by far the largest gas utility in the state. Northern Utilities, a Unitil subsidiary, has roughly 30,000 customers in and around the Seacoast, and New Hampshire Gas Corp. has about 1,200 customers in Keene.

An estimated 20 percent of New Hampshire homes are heated with gas, while 51 percent rely on fuel oil and the rest use propane, electricity, wood or some other fuel, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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