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Natural gas use likely to drop

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Warmer than usual weather and the growing use of energy efficient appliances are likely to lead to a slight decrease in the amount of natural gas Pennsylvanians will use during this winter heating season.

Natural gas customers will probably need about 209.8 billion cubic feet of gas this winter, distribution companies told the state Public Utility Commission in data it released Wednesday. That would be a drop of 1.1 billion cubic feet, or 0.5 percent, from last winter's consumption.

“We're talking about almost an insignificant difference,” said Thomas B. Murphy, co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

Weather is likely the primary factor, officials and experts said. They also pointed to efforts by consumers to trim their bills through conservation — a trend that lingered from the recession.

A warmer-than-average October set heating season back, putting off the pace of consumption, commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. People have also been using less gas and more efficient appliances for several years, Kocher and others said.

“There's been a general trend towards conservation,” said Terry Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, which represents the state's gas distributors. “Customers are generally getting smarter about the way they use it and take advantage of technology.”

That trend has caused friction for the industry, which has tried to encourage the state to decouple any connection between profits and usage, Fitzpatrick said. The push for several rate hikes and the new state rule allowing companies to levy system improvement charges have both come from that friction, he said.

The state's distributors all expect to have ample supplies this year, the Energy Association reported to the PUC. The influx of gas from the Marcellus shale and the construction of new pipelines have made stockpiles abundant and ready even for the coldest days, it said. That echoed the seasonal assessment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which made similar nationwide predictions for this winter back in October.

The tepid residential heating demand has pushed gas companies to find more customers, too, Murphy said. Peoples Natural Gas Co. is supplying natural gas to Vogel Disposal Service Inc. and to Giant Eagle stores where it will fuel cars and trucks, a crucial emerging market, Peoples spokesman Barry Kukovich said.

They're hoping the supply and the low prices have led to a tipping point after which locals will use more natural gas. Both Peoples and Equitable — two of the three big distribution companies in Western Pennsylvania — are projecting increases for this winter.

Peoples projects its customers will use 45.2 billion cubic feet of gas this winter, compared to 42.8 billion last winter. Equitable Gas projects its customers will use a total of 18 billion cubic feet of gas this year, up from 17.3 billion last winter.

“We have a lot of people coming to us,” Kukovich said.

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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