Columbia Energy CEO Oliver G. (Rick) Richard gazed deep into acrystal ball yesterday for the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgiaand saw thousands of municipal gas customers using the Internet tochoose from among a plethora of alternative gas suppliers. All themunicipals saw through that crystal, however, was Richard on theother side.

Of the more than 1,000 municipal gas systems nationwide, onlyone, Palo Alto, CA, is considering customer choice, according toBob Cave, president of the American Public Gas Association, whichrepresents munis serving 3.8 million customers in 34 states.

“Our members right now are kind of in a holding pattern,” saidCave. “I have not found any that are unbundling at this point. Evenin New England where most of the investor-owned [utilities] aredoing it, I don’t see my members looking at it.”

Although some of the municipals may see unbundling and choice inthe far distant future, they have lobbied hard against any federaleffort to install retail open access nationwide.

“Most municipal gas systems don’t have a transportation ratestructure set up. And there hasn’t been a customer push. Therehasn’t been the desire on behalf of the managers either,” saidCave. He also noted even the marketers and suppliers, such asEnron, are “not all that interested in it.”

But a lot can happen in five years. In fact, Cave’s vision isnot all that different from Richard’s. “We’re kind of the tail atthe end of the dog but we will wag eventually.” It’s going to taketime for APGA’s members to have that vision. “I haven’t heard a lotof people say ‘Oh, absolutely not.’ They’ve said ‘Oh yes, we’lllook at it.’ Then they smile.” One problem is most municipals servea rural population that in general is unaware of what their optionsor savings could be.

Georgia has a lot of municipalities, and the fact that MGAGasked Richard to speak on the subject shows it is examining, evenencouraging its members to take a look at unbundling and customerchoice, what Richard calls “economic democracy.”

“It’s the next frontier for municipal utilities,” Richard toldtown officials and utility managers from MGAG’s 75 membermunicipalities. That frontier, however, appears to be a long wayoff, sort of like the Pacific Coast was to the 13 colonies.

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