Natural gas deregulation in Georgia right now resembles a party.
It's late in the evening, and the old monopoly provider, Atlanta Gas Light Co., is playing the role of the polite host trying to get the last 400,000 stragglers out the door.
The stragglers in this case are customers who still haven't signed up with a new natural gas provider as part of Georgia's gas deregulation initiative.
Those who haven't picked a new company by midnight Wednesday will have one picked for them at random by the Georgia Public Service Commission.
All gas providers competing in the deregulated market are state-certified, but AGL Spokesman Ross Willis points out those ignoring their right to choose may end up dissatisfied with the provider selected on their behalf.
Think of it in terms of giving an unknown person permission to select your next movie at the video store, he said.
"I wouldn't want to go home with a Pauly Shore movie," Mr. Willis said. "The point is, only you know what is best for you."
Roy Everingham, SCANA Energy's Augusta district manager, said his office has seen a slight increase in sign-ups during the last two weeks, particularly among upper-income professionals such as doctors and lawyers.
"They seem to be the people who have been procrastinating," Mr. Everingham said. "They make so much money, the nickel and dime stuff doesn't bother them."
Customers who don't switch will be reported to the PSC for random assignment, which will conclude by Sept. 24 to allow AGL ample time to officially exit the gas retail business by Oct. 1.
AGL will only be responsible for delivering gas that consumers purchase through the new middleman companies.
Consumers can still switch service free of charge once if they are unhappy with their randomly assigned marketer. To switch again before Jan. 1 results in a $7.50 fee.
Customers will be assigned to marketers based on each company's market share at midnight Wednesday. A company with a 30 percent share among those who switched would get 30 percent of the remaining customers.
That means SCANA Energy, Georgia Natural Gas Service and Shell Energy will get the majority as they boast the largest market shares.
Peachtree Natural Gas, Columbia Energy and United Gas Management would receive the next largest portion. Allocations would drop off sharply after that, with smaller players such as GasKey and Infinite Energy receiving a handful of customers.
Many companies have used the last two weeks to make their final marketing push. SCANA Energy, which is offering new customers Delta Air Lines Sky Miles, brought its NASCAR vehicle and hydro powerboat to Augusta on Saturday.
Others such as Energy America, GasKey and United Gas Management are offering rebates and credits ranging from $10 to $50. And Shell Energy has been touting its customized "weatherproof" billing as well as its fixed rate and variable rate programs.
"People hate that term `subject to change monthly,"' Shell Spokesman Tim Sheehan said.
But some consumers have complained about the difficulty associated with shopping for a marketer because of each company's complex pricing schemes, contracts and unbundled fees.
"Some people have asked why we don't monitor prices and contracts and things of that nature," PSC Commissioner Stan Wise said. "That wouldn't be deregulation, that would be more regulation."
The PSC recommends shoppers use ConsumerForce.com, an Atlanta company whose free online calculator helps consumers find the right marketer for them based on their gas consumption habits.
Consumers can get price quotes by entering their peak-demand number, known as the "DDDC" number, and therm usage into the ConsumerForce Web site calculator.
Both figures can be found on an individual's AGL bill.
Other information on how to pick a marketer is available from the PSC on its Web site at www.psc.state.ga.us or by calling (800) 282-5813.
Some speculate a good portion of the unswitched must have missed the nine-month media blitz.
A recently released AGL survey shows more than half of its customers who haven't picked a new provider believe they can remain customers even after deregulation law ends retail sales.
Business owners and others whose bills are taken care of by third parties such as accountants may have missed the notices or have just been too busy to make the change themselves.
Officials speculate many are simply waiting until the 11th hour to make their choice out of procrastination or a desire to stay with AGL as long as possible.
"A lot of people have been comfortable without service," Mr. Willis said. "It was something that some never really wanted to walk away from."
Damon Cline covers business for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.
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