Low fuel costs mean lower bills for OG&E customers

OKLAHOMA - Plunging natural gas prices mean utility customers get a price break on their bills.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric has passed on "unprecedented" drops in fuel costs by knocking $13.14 off the average monthly bill since January 2015.

The utility said it's the result of off-the-mark cost estimates.

Here is a breakdown of the average decrease per customer:

January 2015 
* -$0.16
* -0.5%

September 2015
* -$5.98
* -18.2%

January 2016
* -$4.39
* -16.3%

July 2016 
* -$2.60
* -11.6%

"We have some really smart people who can forecast this, but no more than you and I know what a gallon of gasoline will cost next March or April," said Randy Swanson, OG&E's director of public affairs. "No electric utility in the state can make a profit off of fuel, so we just pass the cost straight on to the customer."

Lately, OG&E has collected more than it took to buy fuel, resulting in the customer refunds with interest.

The utility typically submits reports to the Corporation Commission yearly but has provided more regular evaluations as fuel costs tumble.

"Well, the costs just kept going down, down, down faster than anybody and farther than anybody could have expected," Swanson said. "With the accelerated decline in prices, we've gone back four times actually in 2015 and 2016."

The incorrect estimate isn't intentional, Swanson said, even as OG&E tries to keep consumer rates as low as possible.

Customers won't see the refund itemized on their bill.

Instead, increases and decreases are reflected in the "fuel adjustment factor" - a lengthy decimal figure that takes into account all forms of energy.

Some, like Lee Paden, see that as a lack of transparency.

"Everybody is concerned about how they're going to pay their bills each month," said Paden, an attorney for the Quality of Service Coalition. "A dollar or two makes a big difference sometimes. You can't just put it on the face of the bill and not explain it to people how it works."

Especially with customers who are on a tight budget, it's important for utilities to be transparent, Paden said.

"With computers, everybody has the capability of putting explanations on their bill," he told NewsChannel 4.

OG&E said calls for transparency are simple "grandstanding."

Rate increases and decreases are both publicized, Swanson said, to make sure there are no surprises for customers.

And, though the pendulum has swung toward refunds lately, fuel costs can just as easily rebound, Swanson said.

"One of these days, it will collect too little [compared to actual costs]," he said. "And, we'll have to go back, and we'll collect that from the customers through their bills."