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Cheap NatGas Still Growing Utility Fan Base, J.D. Power Says

Low natural gas prices mean pain at the wellhead, but they continue to bring smiles at the residential burner tip, according to the latest J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey of gas utility customers.

Overall, customer satisfaction with residential gas utilities has increased by 27 points to 671 from 644 in 2014 (on a 1,000-point scale), continuing an upward trend of four years to an "unprecedented level in the study's history," the firm said in announcing the results of the "2015 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study."

Satisfaction increased across all factors, especially in price (a 30-point gain) and corporate citizenship (up 31 points) from 2014. "Stable low pricing and familiarity with conservation programs help drive satisfaction with price," J.D. Power said. "In the corporate citizenship factor, satisfaction is driven by customer awareness of the utility's efforts to support economic development in local communities; improve the impact on the environment; and foster public safety."

Lower gas bills have been giving customers something to smile about for a while, according to previous J.D. Power surveys (see Daily GPISept. 23, 2011Sept. 20, 2012). The average reported monthly bill decreased in 2015 to $80, down from $81 in 2014 but higher than in 2013 at $75.

Residential gas bills may be falling, but according to Energy Information Administration data, they aren't falling at nearly the same pace as wholesale prices. Between 2003 and 2008, the price U.S. residential consumers paid for natural gas averaged 168% of NGI's Henry Hub index. However, that figure jumped to a whopping 283% between 2009 and 2014.

The J.D. Power study, now in its 14th year, measures residential customer satisfaction with gas utility companies across six factors (in order of importance): billing and payment; price; corporate citizenship; communications; customer service; and field service.

Although safety awareness has steadily increased by five percentage points since 2013, the 2015 study finds there is room to improve as 72% of customers are unaware of their utility's efforts in this regard, and 67% said they want to hear more about safety. Carbon monoxide is one such topic of interest to customers, with only 4% having heard how to avoid it and 33% wanting to hear more about it.

"Safety is becoming increasingly important to customers, and they look to their utility to provide information that helps keep them safe when using and being around natural gas," said J.D. Power’s Andrew Heath, director of the energy practice. "The gas utility industry should ramp up its efforts to make sure more than just 28% of customers know about its endeavors to increase safety and to provide actionable advice to customers."

The study is based on more than 66,000 responses from residential customers of 83 large and midsize gas utilities across the continental United States. The study was fielded between September 2014 and July 2015.

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