Originally created 08/17/99

Undecided natural gas users receive random assignment



ATLANTA -- A computer early Monday picked a retailer for 286,000 natural gas users who couldn't make up their minds about who they wanted to replace Atlanta Gas Light Co.

Some Georgians were too busy, and others didn't feel up to sorting through the complex variables to weigh the 15 active marketers against each other, according to Stan Wise, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. But they're not locked in.

"Even after you've been assigned, you can still change; you can still pick who your marketer is," he said.

Each gas customer gets one free switch of marketer every 12 months, and additional changes cost just $7.50.

The assignment was one of the last steps in the deregulation of Georgia's natural gas market that began last fall for 1.4 million users who had relied solely on one regulated monopoly. State law opened up the market to competition and requires Atlanta Gas to stop selling fuel Oct. 1, though it will continue to own, operate and maintain its statewide network of pipes that deliver the gas.

Commission staff told Atlanta Gas computer technicians early Monday which companies could get the assigned customers. In several steps designed to assure that no company got the most-profitable customers, the computer sorted through all the uncommitted commercial and residential accounts to make random assignments.

"If marketers happen to get a bad draw, that's the way it is," said Michelle Wilkerson, senior gas analyst with the commission.

Uncommitted customers were allocated proportionally to the companies, according to their share of users who had picked them before Aug. 11.

Commission officials confirmed figures published last week by a gas industry newsletter showing Georgia Natural Gas holds the largest share with 31 percent. That should give it an estimated 90,000 new customers from the assignment.

Next is SCANA Energy with 30 percent, picking up about 86,000 customers, followed by Peachtree Natural Gas with 11 percent and Shell Energy Services with 10.6 percent, gaining about 31,000 each.

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.