November 21, 2014

Medina
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County weighs group gas plan with townships

MEDINA — County residents who purchase natural gas to heat their homes may have a new option on the table in 2014.

County officials are talking with township leaders about pursuing a natural gas aggregation plan similar to the electric aggregation plan adopted by most Medina townships and municipalities in May 2010.

The county would administer the plan that would allow residents to collectively negotiate for natural gas rates. Commissioners are interested in working with Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council to provide the aggregation services.

“Our purpose right now is to talk to township officials and see whether it makes sense to put natural gas aggregation on the ballot the way you have in the past with electric,” said Chuck Keiper, executive director of NOPEC, during one of two meetings for township trustees this week.

NOPEC already serves 174 communities in 10 Northeast Ohio counties, including Cuyahoga, Lorain, Summit and Medina.

Under the gas aggregation plan NOPEC offers, residents could see lower gas rates overall because the aggregate represents a large customer base and thus more negotiating power.

“It transforms small individual groups and consumers into stronger and more powerful negotiating groups,” Keiper said. “NOPEC has become one of the leaders in the state in making sure your interests are on the table.”

The city of Brunswick has been a part of NOPEC since the voters approved aggregation in 2000. Brunswick contracts both energy and natural gas aggregation with NOPEC.

Brunswick City Manager Jim Lukas serves on the NOPEC board of directors. Each municipality in NOPEC gets a vote within the Council, and the 10-member board of directors is comprised of an official from each county within NOPEC.

Lukas said NOPEC is one of the best boards he has ever served on because it’s comprised of public officials elected by their peers in the county to represent their communities.

“NOPEC provides a great service for the average resident who doesn’t want to spend time searching around for the best rates,” Lukas said.

Lukas and the other directors on the board aren’t paid, Keiper said.

“They are only driven to get the lowest price available,” he said.

Under natural gas aggregation, residents would have the choice to “opt out” of NOPEC at the beginning of the program. Every two years, residents would have another opportunity to opt out.

Once joining NOPEC, residents won’t see any major changes on their natural gas utility bills. Residents still would pay their natural gas bill to their utility provider; for example, Columbia Gas. The aggregate would decide what company provides the natural gas.

Keiper said they can’t always guarantee they will deliver the lowest rate, but they can guarantee their rates consistently are among the lowest.

“Our thought is the average Joe shouldn’t be subject to major spikes in costs,” Keiper said. “We are always in the top 10 percent for having the lowest rates.”

Keiper said the advantage for residents is that it takes time to research and compare supplier rates and there are sometimes fees associated with individual customers switching their gas providers to get a lower rate. Through an aggregate, there is always a team working to try and find the lowest price to negotiate, and with 250,000 natural gas customers in NOPEC, the company has a large bargaining chip. If NOPEC walks away from a supplier, that supplier loses out on 250,000 potential customers.

“On the supply side, the suppliers get to predict their load, which is ideal for them,” he said.

County Commissioner Steve Hambley said the county could put a gas aggregation proposal on the ballot in November, but paperwork must be submitted to the county Board of Elections by Aug. 7.

Hambley said commissioners could put the issue on the ballot for all non-incorporated areas of the county or allow townships to put the issue on individually. If the ballot is countywide, it only would require a simple majority of votes. If it’s township by township, township, each could have a different outcome.

Hambley said commissioners are interested in answering any questions township leaders have and receiving input on how they should move forward.

No matter how the vote is handled, the county would administer the aggregate program for all approving townships.

Hambley said if the measure is approved in November, each community would have to adopt a plan of management for the aggregation. The county would then enter into a contract with NOPEC.

The contract and management plans could take until spring 2014 to complete.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.