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Watchdogs: Natural Gas Customers in MN Not Getting Fair Shake


Monday, July 11, 2022   

In the near future, Minnesota regulators will decide whether companies such as CenterPoint Energy can keep customer surcharges in place related to a 2021 winter storm. Watchdogs worry utilities are leaning too much on ratepayers for higher natural-gas prices.

In February of 2021, Winter Storm Uri sent prices soaring, and utilities serving Minnesota incurred significant costs as a result. But the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota contends CenterPoint still made more than $1 billion in profits last year.

CUB's Senior Regulatory Advocate Brian Edstrom noted that the company benefited financially from a merger involving one of its affiliates, creating a tale of two economies.

"CenterPoint's shareholders did well," said Edstrom. "And their ratepayers did not do well."

He said there's nothing to suggest price gouging is happening. But CUB says as some customers fall behind on payments, state regulators should force the utilities to pick up at least some of the tab.

The company argues it did not receive windfall profits from the affiliate deal. And two administrative law judges have sided with the utilities, ahead of a final decision on the bill surcharge question.

Karlee Weinmann - research and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute - said while these companies did encounter sizable price costs, state findings show they didn't do enough to prepare for the situation.

She said it's worth noting CenterPoint's CEO took home $38 million in compensation last year.

"What we're seeing," said Weinmann, "is a real mismatch in what the experience is for the utility and its executives, and the customers it's supposed to serve."

She said she feels the pending outcome of the regulatory review is something the public should be watching closely.

"Especially at a time when we're seeing a lot of struggles among households, among business owners," said Weinmann. "This is just a pivitol place to be placing our attention."

Customers also are encouraged to offer feedback to the Public Utilities Commission before it makes its decision.

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