MidAmerican reps: Natural gas prices unpredictable, but remain stable

The good news: the price of natural gas provided to Vermillion consumers has followed a similar trend from past years, and has remained stable.

The bad news: the effect that winter weather may have on those prices is as unpredictable as the weather itself.

"Projections have been made that the costs for heating this year will be similar to what it was last year, which was approximately 20 percent lower than the bills in the winter of 2007," said Mary Zanter, operations supervisor for MidAmerican Energy. Her duties include management over the energy company's construction crews in Vermillion and in the Yankton area. "Hopefully, bills are somewhat stabilized, but the actual heating costs will depend on how cold the winter is, and how much natural gas is used by the consumers. Just because the prices are a little lower doesn't mean you can turn your thermostat way up and still expect your bill to be lower."

She admitted that it's hard to predict what may happen with natural gas prices, because winter temperatures are equally unpredictable. "Hopefully, things will remain stable," Zanter said.

MidAmerican Energy is the natural gas franchisee for the city of Vermillion, and as such, the energy company is required to meet with the city council annually.

In the past year, MidAmerican Energy has offered an energy efficiency program to South Dakota consumers.

"It involves a number of energy efficiency programs that help constumers reduce energy costs and save money. Customers can install and receive rebates for high efficiency air conditioners, heat pumps, natural gas furnaces and water heaters," she said. "Also, South Dakota customers who own their home and there home was built before Dec. 31, 1989 are eligible for a free energy audit."

This procedure includes installation of simple energy efficiency measures, and financial incentive for insulation improvements," Zanter said.

Brad Howard, an economic development consultant for MidAmerican Energy, told aldermen that the company assists with economic development efforts in the communities its serves through its Local Partners Fund.

"We have money available to the Chambers of Commerce in the different cities through applications. Steve (Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company) has put in for funding to help with a making improvements to their web site," he said.

MidAmerican also provided funding that helped VCDC personnel attend a conference that involved the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Howe also participated in an economic development conference involving 10 Midwest states. "It's a one-on-one with a number of major site selectors, and the information that you get is invaluable. Steve has gone the last couple years and has been very excited with the results that he has gotten by being able to talk to these people directly."

"Some of the things that we are going to be looking at, and looking to MidAmerican to help fund, are things such as a virtual spec building," Howe told the city council. "What that basically involves is getting everything ready except for the actual building. You have all the plans in place, you have all the infrastructure in place – that's a concept that is becoming more popular in economic development marketing."

MidAmerican Energy can also assist the VCDC with a variety of other programs, ranging from web site improvements to lending financial assistance to help Vermillion representatives attend marketing and trade shows.

"They (MidAmerican) have been really involved in the Vermillion community, and we really do value them as a partner," Howe said. "We are looking forward to continue working with them."

 "In 2009, we had another good year for customer satisfaction," Zanter said.

"MidAmerican was ranked first in a study by J.D. Powers and Associates in the midwest region," she said, "in electric, residential, business and gas commercial customer satisfaction studies, and second in the nation for gas residential service."

Zanter said there has been no major change in the energy company's staffing in the region.

"We have a construction crew that works out of Vermillion; we also have a construction crew that works out of Yankton," she said. "We have a total of five service personnel who cover the area. The one service personnel who covers the Vermillion area primarily lives here in Vermillion, so we've got somebody locally. The other groups also cover the area, so we always have somebody on call to respond to emergencies and gas leaks. And among our crew, our crew foreman also lives in Vermillion, so it's nice to have somebody local who knows what's going on in the community."

MidAmerican Energy was called to 169 gas leaks in 2009, and personnel had an average response time of approximately 22 minutes. "That's a fairly quick response, and a little quicker than it had been in previous years," Zanter said.

MidAmerican Energy's major projects in Vermillion in the past year include the retirement of gas mains that had served a trailer park in the area of the city where the Coyote Village student housing is currently being constructed.

"We ran a new service to the Coyote Village building, and we also installed new mains and service to the new wellness center on the USD campus," Zanter said. "We were also happy to see Cherry Street completed, and have our work done there as well. We also had 11 new residential services and five non-residential services that we ran in the past year."

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