The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) unanimously approved a $68.2 million rate hike for Columbia Gas of Ohio Thursday over the objection of Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE), Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and Citizens Utility Board (CUB), which said higher residential fixed charges and eliminated energy efficiency programs for all, but low-income groups were not in consumers’ interests.

The vote made official a three-month-old settlement between a wide range of parties including PUCO staff, Office of Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), Ohio Manufacturers’ Association (OMA) Energy Group, Industrial Energy Users (IEU) Ohio, Interstate Gas Supply (IGS), Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC), Ohio Schools Council (OSC), Retail Energy Supply Association (RESA), The Kroger Co., and Columbia Gas, which serves 1.45 million customers in 60 Ohio counties. (See The Hannah Report, 11/1/22.)

“The settlement agreement in this case is a reasonable resolution to this case that balances impacts to monthly bills while supporting utility investments in safety and economic development programs,” PUCO Chairwoman Jenifer French said.

Commissioners noted the agreement, which includes a $3.76 increase in fixed distribution charges for residential customers, ultimately saves consumers $145 million in additional rate hikes sought by Columbia Gas, which had proposed tripling the fixed increase.

Residential customers will pay 95 percent of the $68.2 million rate increase. School ratepayers, on the other hand, will see an additional billing discount of 50 percent over current savings.

“The stipulation provides for important funding to promote the reliability and safety of natural gas service in Columbia’s service area,” commissioners said. “The stipulation also provides for significantly lower [billing] rider caps than proposed by Columbia and for the filing of a new rate case in 2027.”

The state’s largest natural gas utility will provide its WarmChoice low-income home weatherization program $70 million over the next five years, along with $3.5 million in new bill-payment assistance.

“The commission modified the settlement to clarify the $3.5 million in bill-payment assistance should be funded by Columbia Gas of Ohio shareholders and not in part by customers,” PUCO noted separately Thursday.

Columbia Gas also will continue its infrastructure replacement program (IRP) and its capital expenditure program (CEP) to recover “incremental” investments over the next five years.

“Annual rate caps included in the settlement agreement will reduce potential future charges by a collective $482 million, compared to what Columbia Gas of Ohio sought in its application,” PUCO said.

The IRP rider will increase from $2.77 to $8.47 and the CEP rider from $3.42 to $8.74 between 2023 and 2027.

The consumers’ counsel muted its praise for the ruling in light of energy efficiency changes since the October settlement.

“We are disappointed that the PUCO, in addressing the settlement that we and others negotiated, eliminated a Columbia commitment that we bargained for to further protect more than a $100 million in reduced energy efficiency charges to consumers. Otherwise, we appreciated the efforts by parties over nearly half a year to find a path to a settlement that significantly benefits consumers compared to Columbia’s original rate increase request,” OCC spokesman J.P. Blackwood said in a statement.