Despite trouble in the retail market in several states thisyear, gas customer choice appears to be making a little progress.The Michigan Public Service Commission has adopted terms andconditions to make gas choice programs for residential andcommercial customers a permanent fixture in the state.

This “action reinforces the Commission’s belief that flexibleregulatory mechanisms are appropriate in the dynamic natural gasindustry,” said Commission Chairman John Strand. It follows acommission-ordered collaborative process conducted by thecommission staff involving Michigan Consolidated Gas (MichCon),Consumers Energy Co., SEMCO Energy Gas Co. and other interestedparties to develop uniform terms for Michigan’s natural gas choiceprogram. On Sept. 22, staff submitted its report to the commissionand interested parties filed comments on it.

In the order, the commission recognized among other things, thata customer choice program established for larger local distributioncompanies (LDCs) would not the right model for smaller LDCs. Thecommission encouraged smaller regulated LDCs to develop tailoredcustomer choice programs according to their own time frame. The gasdivision of the commission plans to work with smaller LDCs such asWPS Corp., Xcel Energy and Peninsular Gas to help them implementtheir own programs.

The comments the commission received were mixed, with someutilities agreeing with the majority of staff’s recommendations butothers requesting more time. The one common factor was that all thecompanies offered changes to proposed rules.

After the order was issued, Consumers Energy filed to expand itsprogram and make it permanent. Using a phased-in approach,Consumers will expand to 600,000 customers beginning April 1, 2001,then to 900,000 on April 1, 2002, and to all customers by April 1,2003.

Semco told the commission there was not enough time for it tomake a decision on the proposal. “The time constraint that wasimposed upon the participants, as well as the process as a whole,did not provide adequate time to explore and evaluate what Semcobelieves to be other viable options,” Semco said in its comments.”Additional time is still available before the expiration ofSemco’s choice program, during which Semco would like theopportunity to explore and discuss its options with the staff andcommission.”

Michigan Gas Utilities (MGU), an LDC serving about 150,000Michigan customers, said it supported the concept of voluntarycustomer choice programs. “MGU will be working with Semco todevelop a draft plan of permanent customer choice program that willbe submitted to staff by Jan. 1, 2001,” MGU said. “This proposeddraft will be designed to meet the operational needs of themid-sized utilities and will contain as much detail as is practicalin the time frame given to the final plan.” MGU hopes to implementa customer choice program for its customers around spring 2002.

The commission also ordered that unbundling should be consideredfor other services provided by Michigan’s major utilities withinone year of this order and that the commission staff should developa customer education program with the help of major stakeholders.

The MichCon and Semco pilots run until March 31, 2002. TheConsumers Energy pilot expires next April. The three companiesprovide natural gas for 94% of retail gas customers in the state.

Alex Steis

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