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Natural gas customers to see CenterPoint rate hike

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Minnesota's Public Utility Commission approved a rate hike for customers of CenterPoint Energy on Thursday. But in a twist, customers may get a refund as well.

The Star Tribune explained that CenterPoint had sought a 5 percent increase in revenue. But an administrative law judge recommended cutting the request to 3.6 percent. "The final rate hike is expected to be close to the lower number, but exact figures were not immediately available," the newspaper reported.

The refund comes because CenterPoint got a 4.9 percent interim increase last October. The difference will result in what the Star Tribune calls "a small refund on bills" for many of the company’s 823,000 Minnesota customers.

Most of the extra revenue will go to CenterPoint’s plan to more than double its annual investment in replacing aging pipeline infrastructure.

In a story on its website, AARP Minnesota chronicled the organization's efforts to fight the rate hikes. It circulated a petition, emailed members to solicit public comment, and sent 700 letters to the Public Utilities Commission. Amy McDonough, AARP Minnesota associate state director for advocacy, said rate increases place a disproportionate burden on older people.

“Older consumers devote a higher percentage of their total income toward energy than other age groups, so they’re just more sensitive to these issues,” she said.

The state Public Utilities Commission also set up a three-year billing experiment to strengthen CenterPoint’s conservation efforts and even out the big swings in customer bills — and company revenue — that follow winters that are either more harsh or milder than typical. The new billing method is being used by at least 50 U.S. natural gas utilities.

Last week, CenterPoint reported a 17 percent increase in operating profit for its six-state gas distribution business. That follows an exceptionally cold winter with bills that were much higher than usual.

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