There may be a silver lining in this year’s plunge in gas prices: it may prevent rioting by the rate-paying villagers. Apparently, consumers have had just about enough of rising bills. Downward adjustments to rates couldn’t be coming at a better time.

Overall customer satisfaction with the 56 largest natural gas local distribution companies (LDC) declined sharply following a reported 23% increase in residential monthly bills compared to 2005, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study released Wednesday.

The customer satisfaction index fell 38 points to 638 on a 1,000-point scale. Overall customer satisfaction is based on performance in six factors: billing and payment; communications; company image; customer service; field service; and price and value. Utilities are ranked in four geographical regions.

The study finds that the national average monthly gas utility bill has increased to $115, marking the first time in the study’s five-year history that reported bill amounts have exceeded $100.

The decline in customer satisfaction is a marked change from the picture two years ago when J.D. Power reported that customers were still largely content in spite of higher prices. Despite a 14% increase in average residential gas utility rates, the 2004 survey found that customer satisfaction was unchanged from 2003 (see NGI, Sept. 20, 2004).

“We know from industry data that consumption of natural gas has remained stable among residential customers, but natural gas prices and recent rate changes have increased gas utility monthly bill amounts, frequently with large fluctuations that frustrate customers,” said Alan Destribats, executive director of the utility practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “Utilities that educate customers on energy-savings programs, such as conservation and rebates, score higher on overall customer satisfaction. It is extremely important for utilities to keep an informative dialogue with customers.”

For the first time, the study includes a component that measures the effectiveness of gas utility communications with residential customers. The performance of utilities on this component shows that the more frequently a utility communicates with its customers, the more satisfied customers are overall.

UGI Utilities ranks highest in overall customer satisfaction in the East region for a fourth consecutive year. UGI is followed in the regional rankings by New Jersey Natural Gas. Also performing well in the region are South Jersey Gas, Con Edison, PECO, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, Elizabethtown Gas, Public Service Electric & Gas, Washington Gas Light and Dominion Peoples

In the Midwest, CenterPoint Energy-Minnesota ranks highest for a second time. CenterPoint is followed in the rankings by MidAmerican. Also performing well in the region are Louisville Gas & Electric, Wisconsin Public Service, Citizens Gas & Coke, Consumers Energy, We Energies, Kansas Gas Service, Duke Energy, Northern Indiana Public Service and Vectren.

CPS Energy ranks highest in the South region for a second consecutive year, followed by PSNC Energy. Also performing well in the region are Texas Gas Service, Piedmont Natural Gas, Alagasco, South Carolina Electric & Gas, Virginia Natural Gas and Oklahoma Natural Gas.

Southern California Gas ranks highest in the West region for a third consecutive year, and receives the highest index score in the study. Southern California Gas is followed in the regional rankings by Northwest Natural.

Study results are based on customer responses from 12,369 telephone interviews conducted between April and June 2006 among residential customers of the 56 largest gas utilities across the continental United States.

Headquartered in Westlake Village, CA, J.D. Power and Associates is a marketing information services firm and a business unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

©Copyright 2006Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news reportmay not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in anyform, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.