Energy marketers last year saw record growth in residential and small business customer enrollments in states with “well constructed, competitive natural gas and electricity choice programs,” according to a trade association. And natural gas enrollments hit a record, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

“Enrollment in [natural gas] ‘customer choice’ programs reached a new high in 2009, with about 445,000 more participants than in 2008, an increase of 9%,” EIA said in a new report. “Overall, nearly 15%, or about 5.1 million, of the approximately 35 million residential natural gas consumers with access to choice were buying natural gas from marketers as of December 2009, up from the 4.7 million participating in 2008.”

The National Energy Marketers Association (NEMA) said the statistics support expectations of growth in the sector.

“In my opinion, the new emerging ‘energy services and technology industry’ is poised for explosive growth over the next three years,” said NEMA President Craig Goodman. “States like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio have been steadily improving their regulations to permit competitive energy suppliers to offer real savings and competitively priced energy services and technologies to all consumers.

“This is especially good news for residential and small business customers, who historically have not had the opportunity to shop for their energy supplies. Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York have adopted a series of new energy policies, which have allowed hundreds of thousands of small consumers to shop for energy in ways that were not available to them before.”

For the first time, Ohio instead of Georgia had the most natural gas choice customers, with about 58% of eligible households participating and enrollment levels of nearly 1.7 million, EIA said. “However, Georgia continued to have the most comprehensive choice program in that all 1.5 million residential customers in Atlanta Gas Light Co.’s service territory (more than 80% of the state’s residential gas customers) purchase their natural gas directly from marketers.”

EIA noted that 21 states and the District of Columbia have legislation or existing programs that allow residential and small-volume customers to choose gas suppliers other than utilities. The number of states with choice programs has remained the same since 2003, but programs vary widely, EIA said.

Goodman predicted growth to come in customer choice among electricity consumers.

“As price caps continue to come off of electric utility rates later this year in Pennsylvania, and both Maryland and Illinois begin to implement new utility billing practices, this could easily set the stage for many years of record growth for this emerging new highly competitive energy services and technology industry,” he said. “At the same time, the growth in smart grid technologies will save consumers additional energy costs.”

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