Columbia Gas wanted to "alert customers to the fact that marketers will be in contact with them," said Columbia Gas spokesman Steve Halvonik. Participants would receive service from the new supplier beginning Nov. 1.
Those marketers are Columbia Energy Services, Commonwealth Energy Services, Enron Capital and Trade, Keyspan, PG&E Energy Trading and Promark Energy Inc. Halvonik described Columbia Energy Services as a "non-regulated marketing affiliate" of Columbia Gas.
That's three times the number of marketers during the first phase of the Columbia Choice program, which drew about 300 customers statewide last year. A small commercial business phase, which ended June 1, tripled the number of participants over last year from 186 to 526.
As with long distance and electricity service, the deregulation of natural gas does not require the installation of new utility lines. The marketers purchase the gas from the producers and sell to customers while using Columbia Gas lines.
"The cost of natural gas is somewhere around 60 percent of the monthly bill, so we're letting the consumer shop around," said Halvonik. The savings for the customer would come from the marketer offering gas at a percentage of Columbia's rate, or at a set rate, usually per 100 cubic feet.
"We can't promise that people who participate will save," he added, "but the opportunity is there."
For last year, the average residential customer in the region used 108,000 cubic feet of gas and had a monthly bill of about $70.
Columbia Gas is a regulated utility with the Public Service Commission of Maryland and must be able to guarantee delivery of enough gas for everyone in the service area for even the coldest days of the year.
Halvonik said the six marketers have been certified to be able to meet their customers' needs.
Beginning in August, Columbia Gas will hold 23 community meetings in the three counties, including three tentatively scheduled for the Hagerstown area, he said. At least one of those would be at the service center at 55 Sycamore St.
While customers can buy gas from the marketers, Columbia will still be reading the meters, doing service calls and maintaining the lines. That could mean some customers could receive two bills a month. Columbia has made arrangements with some marketers to consolidate bills into one.
Halvonik recommended customers also ask marketers whether they are a qualified participant in the program, if the offer includes all taxes and fees, a budget payment plan and the contract length. Consumers also should ask if there is a penalty if they switch to another marketer and if they have a toll-free number for service and billing questions.
For more information about the second phase of the pilot program, customers can call toll-free to 1-888-275-4674.