The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has ordered two major utilities to suspend programs that resulted in about 50,000 households paying above-market prices for natural gas. All customers will be released from the fixed-pricing programs as of October 31. Customers receiving government assistance to pay heating bills will be released earlier.
PUC Chairman Leroy Koppendrayer said the fixed-price programs, offered by CenterPoint Energy and Xcel Energy may not return.
"Because of ongoing questions concerning the no-surprise bill, the commission decided to suspend the program for the next heating season, consequently, the program will be suspended until 2008 and '09 heating season if it's re-entered into at all," he said.
Jason DeBoer-Moran of St. Paul says he enrolled in Xcel's Fixed Monthly Gas Payment by mistake.
"It's terrible deal. The price was just so high," he says. "When gas prices are low, we're paying more than I feel we should be."
DeBoer-Moran said he intended to enroll in a different program -- one that would spread his gas and electricity costs over 12 months into about equal payments.
Attorney General Lori Swanson says the programs have cost Minnesota consumers about $26 million.
Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Hoen says the company hopes to reach a settlement that satisfies Swanson and the Public Utilities Commission.
"We hope to have some kind of resolution in place," says Hoen. "Obviously, we want what's best for our customers, but we have to look out for ourselves. Whether that means recovering some of the costs of the program, that's one of the areas we're be looking at."
Xcel's Fixed Monthly Gas Payment program, which is two years old, has some 10,000 participants. CenterPoint Energy began its No Surprise Bill program in 2001. About 40,000 CenterPoint customers are in that program.