Reporting John Lauritsen
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Attorney General Lori Swanson says Centerpoint Energy is to blame for a “spike” in some people’s gas prices.
“The program seems to be picking winners and losers among rate players, for reasons that are unfair,” she said.
Swanson said the pilot billing program that started last summer is hurting some senior citizens and low income families — customers that are home more often and have to use more gas.
“The people who use the most are paying double what the people who use the least would be paying,” Swanson said.
Surrounded by more than 20 people who are challenging CenterPoint’s “tiered pricing program,” Swanson said the idea is good in theory, but not in practice. Instead of a flat rate it charges by the more gas a customer uses, the more they pay.
CenterPoint went from a flat rate to tiered pricing last July. The idea was to reward customers who use less gas.
Since it began, CenterPoint says 80 percent of customers are actually paying the same or less for gas, and just 20 percent are paying more. But that 20 percent includes people like Jack Ross.
He and his wife are on a fixed income. Both have cancer and live in an older home where they spend much of their time. Last winter, they paid $164 more than they are used to.
“I heard they were doing the rate change and I called and complained about it,” Ross said.
Jim Branstad lives in St. James, in a home that was built in 1923. He said he’s done a lot of energy-efficient work to his house, but found himself paying a lot more last winter.
“I can afford to pay the rate but I don’t like to. But there are a lot of families in our community and I just want to stick up for them as well,” Branstad said.
CenterPoint said those customers only pay more over a four-month period, and will pay less during the rest of the year.
“What we are going to do now is review the comments, and respond accordingly and within the regulatory process,” said CenterPoint spokesperson Rebecca Virden.
Swanson said some people have experienced longer billing cycles — up to 39 days in some cases.
She said CenterPoint did not do this intentionally. In fact, Swanson believes the premise behind the program is to get people to conserve energy.
She is asking the Public Utilities Commission to suspend and review the program, and wants CenterPoint to pay back what she feels some customers overpaid last winter.