Lower Heating Prices

October 22, 2014

From CNBC

Lower heating prices
A drop in energy costs is good news for consumers as the temperatures fall. Most households may only see $20 to $30 in savings on their heating bills this season compared to last winter, but some customers could see a nearly $800 drop in their overall heating costs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
More than a third of U.S. households use natural gas to heat their homes and the price of that fuel is likely to be higher than last winter (electricity prices, which follow natural gas, are on the rise too), but the forecast for milder temperatures should mean overall consumption for the heating season–and your bill–will be lower than last year. If you’re in the Northeast and use heating oil or propane to heat your home, you could see a 15-percent drop in your winter heating bill versus last winter. Propane users in the Midwest may pay the most in the country to heat their homes, but with the drop in propane prices, the overall cost will be about 30 percent less than last year, according to the EIA.

By Andrew Maykuth

Inquirer Staff Writer

Pennsylvania electricity customers are skeptical they can save much by
shopping for power.

Although 88 percent of customers say they are aware they can switch to
alternative suppliers, only 45 percent have shopped, according to a statewide
survey conducted by Terry Madonna Opinion Research.

Twenty-three percent of residential customers statewide have switched,
according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. About 1.4 million
customers have switched.

Madonna and several electricity suppliers told the PUC on Thursday that
nearly a year after Pennsylvania’s retail utility deregulation went into full
effect, the public remains wary of shopping.

“There are a fair number of people who did not look into changing an electric
supplier because they didn’t believe there would be long-term savings in it,”
said Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin
and Marshall College in Lancaster.

The poll results were presented Thursday at a PUC hearing on competition.

The surveys found that price was the main concern driving customers to
switch, but many said the perceived savings were insufficient to make them
switch.

Suppliers said some residential customers have recorded savings up to $300 a
year.

Madonna, who conducted his telephone survey of 801 customers in September on
behalf of Constellation Energy, said 78 percent said they would consider
switching if they could save 10 percent on their generation charge.

Many customers who declined to shop said they were happy with their current
supplier regardless of the cost.

Madonna’s findings were echoed by an Internet survey of 450 customers
conducted by AlphaBuyer, a Paoli group- buyer that markets online.

Forty percent of the customers said the savings were not worth it, said Kevin
McCloskey, AlphaBuyer’s chief operating officer. About 24 percent said shopping
was too confusing or the choices overwhelming. About 15 percent said switching
was too risky or that it was a “scam.”

Under Pennsylvania’s Electric Choice law, customers can choose a company that
markets the power. Billing is still conducted by the incumbent utility company,
which collects a fee for distributing the power.

Customers who don’t switch are still supplied by the utility at a default
rate.

Only 18 percent of customers had visited the PUC’s website for choosing a
supplier. PUC members said more customer education was needed.

“It’s perplexing to us with all the tools being made available to customers
we only see 20 percent of the residential customers shopping,” said Robert F.
Powelson, PUC chairman.

Our Perspective:

HBS has been dealing in the deregulated energy market for over 10 years. I have always been suspect of the proposed residential savings in this market.  Most of the time you are offered a floating rate that may offer minimal savings.

The opposite is true in the commercial market. There are providers offering fixed price alternatives that offer a great opportunity for savings. HBS has found great success in the PA commercial deregulated market. We represent all the major providers selling electric in the PA market.

There is no upfront cost. Deregulated savings in the energy market has been a welcomed windfall for any business in both the New Jersey and Peennsylvania market who willing to look at the opportunity.

 

Read more: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20111111_Most_in_Pa__avoid_shopping_for_electricity_supplier.html#ixzz1ddcYbDS5

As printed in philly.com

 

LindaPeterson  of West Chester was eager to switch from Peco Energy Co. at the end of last year.
She signed up for an alternative electricity supplier offering avariable rate that would fluctuate depending upon market conditions.

AsPeterson  discovered, variable rates sure can vary.

For a few months this year, Peterson’s rate was very attractive, indeed. But it went up
58 percent from May to June. At 15.63 cents per kilowatt hour – that’s just the
generation charge – her last bill was about $23 more than it would have been had
she stayed with Peco.

“I knew there would be some variation, but that’s just a huge, huge increase,” said
Peterson, who is semi-retired.

A representative from her supplier, Palmco Power PA L.L.C., did not return a phone call about
Peterson’s bill. But its customer-service department, in an unsigned e-mail,
blamed an “unusual” wholesale price spike for the increase.

“Thankfully,however, shortly after the wholesale price increase, wholesale prices dropped,and our
price billed to our customers dropped accordingly,” it said.

In Pennsylvania’s buyer-beware world of deregulated utilities, Peterson can’t do much but switch to
another supplier. Her agreement, like most with variablerates, does not carry an
early cancellation fee.

According to the state Public Utility Commission, a supplier can bill a variable-rate customer
at whatever price it believes the market will bear, even if the customer
originally thought he or she was getting a discount.

A company also can offer different rates to different customers. The variable rate that is
on a customer’s bill does not have to be the same as the initial price posted on
the PUC’s website, http://PAPowerSwitch.com.

“A supplier could have one rate for PowerSwitch . . . while offering a different rate
door-to-door . . . yet a different rate for enrolling by mail,”Denise McCracken,
the PUC’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “They could offer me one rate . . . my
neighbor a different rate (as long as they are not discriminatingon the basis of
race, gender, etc. of course).”

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where dozens of electrical suppliers are competing, customers
accustomed to a lifetime of regulated utility prices now face a dizzying array of
choices – fixed rates, variable rates, and”green” rates from renewable-power
generators. Next year, Peco customers will begin seeing rates that vary hourly,
according to the market.

More than 20 percent of Peco customers have switched since Jan. 1. But despite promises of
savings, most residential customers seem unwilling to leave the protective comfort of the regulated utility.

On Monday, the Retail Energy Supply Association launched a campaign to educate customers
about the benefits of switching, but it faces headwinds generated bycustomers such as Peterson, who share their experiences.

“My neighbors are very scared about switching,” said Peterson, a clinical social worker with a
small private practice.

Peterson was an early adopter of electricity choice. She had switched suppliers in the late
1990s, when limited deregulation was introduced into the Peco market. Competitive
suppliers eventually pulled out because they could no longer beat the utility’s
capped rates. But when Peco’s rate limits were lifted at the endof 2010,
competitive suppliers returned en masse.

Peterson signed up with Palmco, the marketing arm of a Brooklyn fuel-oil dealer, which posted a
price on the PUC’s website. She liked the company’s low-key marketing,compared
with the blustery direct-mail appeals she received from bigger suppliers.

“The fact that they weren’t doing a lot of heavy marketing, I guess I trusted them
a little,” she said. “I didn’t expect them to escalate the price like that.”

According to a review of Peterson’s bills, Palmco’s rate was very generous during the first
few months. It charged her an introductory rate of 5.78 cents perkilowatt hour,
clearly a below-market 42 percent off Peco’s rate. But by May,Palmco’s rate had
increased to 9.91 cents – just about the same rate Peco was charging.

And then in June came the whopping 58 percent increase – to 15.63 cents per kilowatt hour.
Peterson averages about 475 kilowatt hours a month.

The owner of Palmco, Robert Palmese, did not return a phone call. But his
company’scustomer-service department offered this response:

“Our family has been in the energy business since 1938, 73 years. We know from experience
that it is always in the best interest of our customers to keep prices for energy
as low as possible.”

In an interview in October, Palmese offered reassurance to customers who might consider
his company.

“We have very casual marketing,” he said. “We’d like our customers tolike us. Just try
us, you may like us.

“You are always free to leave.”

 

Our Perspective

HBS is a independent deregulated energy management consultant. We have been providing deregulated energy solutions to our clients since 2000. We have heard stories like the one experienced above, countless times.

While the energy market prices are at their low point, it would be smart to lock into a fixed price contract for natural gas or electric for a minimum of 1 year but also be willing to look at the 2 year option. Fixed priced contracts normally provide a 10% to 15% savings under what Peco ic currently charging.

Do not be fooled by the variable rate options.

It is a good marketing ploy….

no contract…

month to month float….

But you will only pay more in the long run.

 

To learn more about deregulated opportunities for yopur business email

george@hbsadvantage.com

Visit us on the web www.hutchinsonbusinesssolutions.com

Online Auctions

March 31, 2011

The deregulated energy market is causing a big buzz in this area. In the spring of 2010, NJ opened up deregulated opportunities to the residential market.

In January 2011, PA opened up the Peco territory to deregulation after a 5 year moratorium.

As the result, the market has been flooded with companies and individuals trying to capitalize on these opportunities.

Online Auction opportunities are now available. All you have to do is type buying deregulated energy online into your Google page and you will have multiple selections.

Also many companies have been promoting a Multi-level marketing approach to set up a grass roots effort in hopes of gaining penetration in the market.

.

As more consumers have grown more comfortable with on line purchasing, it seemed natural that this avenue would be an effective marketing option.

The only problem we see is that when buying energy in the deregulated market, you are dealing with a commodity. This puts a whole new spin on the opportunity.

This week, we would like to take a look at on line auctions.

Below is a plus-minus list we have developed to help you make an objective decision about purchasing energy on line versus using an independent broker.

On Line Auctions:

Plus

  • Feel like you are getting a good deal by participating in an ecommerce transaction
  • Potentially lower price by doing the ecommerce transaction 
  • Potentially easier transaction since there is limited contact with 3rd party energy suppliers
  • Electricity is a commodity and customer’s management feels this is best process for doing transaction

 

Minus

  • Can be more challenging to negotiate terms & conditions  
  • Potentially less leverage with suppliers since there is no personal interaction
  • Difficult determining what factors are included in the price.
    •  Is it fully loaded? (contains 7% loss transmission and sales tax)
    •  Is it a fixed rate or variable rate?
  • How do you know when is the best time to buy
  • Online auctioneers are brokers approaching the same providers we would be using.
  • Many on line auction companies do not have any information on their website regarding the management of the company

 

Dealing with an Independent Broker (Hutchinson Business Solutions)

 

Plus   

  • We represent all the major 3rd party providers selling energy in deregulated sates
  • We offer personal service, individually marketing your account to these providers
  • We monitor market fluctuations and discuss timing with our clients
  • We offer fixed price solutions (Other options available for large volume users)
  • We make sure all prices received are fully loaded and are an apples to apples comparison to your local utility’s price to compare
  • Due to our business relationships, we bring leverage to the deal
  • We assist with customer’s legal team in negotiating the business terms of the contract as they may apply
  • We provide options, defining the best terms and conditions and service the account throughout the term of the contract, addressing issues as they arise
  • We have been advising customer risk management strategies in the deregulated markets for over 10 years.
  • Opportunity to outsource many of the tasks involved with the energy procurement process while retaining the control and final decisions on any potential transaction

 

Minus

  • The energy market is in a growth mode, many new faces and the information is sketchy.
  • You must be sure to deal with a reputable company who will represent your best interest
  • Many of the new companies are offering variable rates

 

At first glance you may think this overview is biased.

Yes, we are an independent broker. We take pride in the value we have brought to our clients in the deregulated market.

We have just seen too much abuse. The deregulated energy market is an unknown.

We take time to explain how the market works with each client. We want you to understand this concept and feel comfortable with your purchase.

Each account is unique. There is no one size fits all solution.

There are great opportunities for savings in the business market.

Know the facts!!!!

Look to ask the right questions.

Let HBS be your eyes and ears….

While you continue to do what you do best….

Run your day to day business.

To learn more about deregulated energy opportunitiews for your business email george@hbsadvantage.com

Visit us on the web www.hutchinsonbusinesssolutions.com

What’s Up?

March 24, 2011

I say potato.

You say patato.

The difference may be just an inflection

Or the pronunciation of the word

(in this case it was my spelling, so you get the gist)

However, we all know what we are discussing.

Shame that the same thing cannot be said

About the word…….

Deregulation……

We should all know what we are discussing

We should all be on the same page…..

But there are so many stories……

Each one providing the best deal……..

A once in a lifetime offer……

Get in on the ground floor…….

What is going on????

With electric prices being at a 7 year low

We are finding, that everyone and their brothers,

Are now selling energy………

I get calls at my office almost….. everyday

Would like to switch electric providers?

How would you like to earn some extra cash?

The market is being inundated.

I am surprised Comcast and Verizon are not selling energy?

HBS has been selling energy to commercial clients for over 10 years

I would like to take a few moments to add our perspective.

Define what we see as the opportunity.

Educate our clients and friends.

Business

 

 

  • The deregulated electric market price is closely tied to natural gas pricing.

 

  •  
    • Thirty ( 30%) of the electric generated in the US is made with natural gas. Therefore, natural gas is a good indicator of the market prices.

 

  • Natural gas market prices are the lowest they have been in the last 4 years.

 

  •  
    • As a result, the deregulated market price of electric has also dropped.

 

  • Many experts think that we may have hit the floor on natural gas prices back at the end of October 2010.

 

  •  
    • The market has gone up and down several times since then, but it has never gone back to the low point recorded on October 25th, 2010.

 

This information indicates that clients should be looking to lock in or fix the price of electric with a 3rd party deregulated provider for a minimum of 1 year…… possibly 2 years.

We have actually seen instances where the 2 year fixed price is more competitive and offers more savings.

Each account is unique. Prices are all based on demand factors.

Are you a seasonal account?

(Highest usages during summer months)

Do you use most of your energy during the day?

(On Peak….when prices are higher)

Or do you have mixed usage?

(On Peak and Off Peak)

All these factors play into defining the deregulated market rate for your account.

Do you have annual usage demands

vs seasonal usage demands……

Your fixed rate will be lower.

(your demand usage is being spread out over the entire year)

Is your usage a mixed between on peak usages and off peak usages

vs only using power during the day,

when rates are the highest

Then your rates will be lower.

Each provider has their sweet spot. A client profile, they are most competitive with in that market.

HBS is an independent energy management consultant. Thru our strategic partnerships, we represent all the major deregulated gas and electric providers selling energy in deregulated states.

Our expertise is the ability to properly define the market and select the provider(s) who will bring the most competitive fixed rate, offering the best opportunity for savings to our clients.

What about Variable rates?

There are many companies now offering variable rates for electric.

Month to month contracts….offering savings of around 10%.

If the market prices are near the bottom,

Why would it not be in the clients’ best interest to lock in a fixed rate instead of floating with a variable rate?

As the summer season starts,

Market rates will also go up,

Due to summer demand.

So will those variable rates!!!!

It only makes sense to lock in on a fixed price,

if the market presents the opportunity.

In the deregulated energy market,

You are dealing with a commodity.

Timing is everything.

Let HBS be your eyes and ears.

Next week, we will outline using an independent broker vs buying online. Also, what does it mean when you say the price is fully loaded

To learn more about deregulated opportunities for your company email george@hbsadvanatge.com  

Visit us on the web www.hutchinsonbusinesssolutions.com

Note: With the current deregulated market opportunities now being presented to many business that qualify, the market has been inundated with new sales personnel. I found this article provides on objective overview of questions you should ask and details you should know before making a decision.

There are many companies offering variable electric rates. I would not recommend this solution at this time.

With natural gas prices being the lowest they have been in the last 3 or 4 years, there are great opportunities to lock into a fixed price electric contract for a 1 or 2 year period.

By Carl Shaw

With the deregulation of energy in many parts of the US, competition is now allowed between energy companies to provide electricity at discounted rates directly to their customers. These Energy Service Provider Companies (ESCOs) are licensed by individual states and are required to adhere to the applicable regulatory guidelines set by the Public Service Commissions (PSC) or Public Utility Commission (PUC).  Customers (end-users) also have the opportunity to work with electricity brokers or consultants who can compare different offers and provide additional services to help manage your monthly energy spending and costs.

If you are a business spending a minimum of $3000 a month  on your electric or natural gas bill, you may qualify to choose your electric or natural gas supplier in deregulated markets, which could create savings opportunities. Companies that can control or manage their electric consumption to use more electricity in the off-peak hours will find the greatest opportunity for savings. In deregulated markets, you now have a choice and can choose lower energy rates without any risk or local service change.

Your local energy service providers buy natural gas and electricity on the open market at wholesale prices based on the current market conditions and then bill their customers at increased rates to include margins and/or service fees.

Independent Deregulated brokers can put your company in a competitive position by leveraging extensive buying power to help you develop energy supply procurement programs. They can conduct an unbiased rate and tariff analyses that may result in substantial savings to you. 

Due to the current economic conditions and the complications deregulation has caused there are many new energy advisory companies popping up, so be sure to know all the facts before making any decision.

When choosing a qualified utility tariff analysis & rate optimization firm to represent you, you should be aware of a few things:

First, be sure that the price you are quoted from your local provider includes all charges. Should you be talking to a consultant or broker, make sure the price is “fully loaded” meaning, does it include the 7% loss allowance (to deliver 100,000 kWh of electric, the providers must actually send 107,000 kWh, for there is a 7% loss in transmission)? Also does it include the local sales tax?

In PA, you must also ask if the price includes GRT (gross receipt tax) and RMR (reliabilty must run). RMR is a pass thru charge from the provider that allows them to meet peak demand periods when they must use additional resources to meet this demand. This is normally found during the summer months.

All these important components should be included in the quote from your deregulated provider to make an accurate comparison. These components are included in your price to compare from your local provider.  Often, companies will provide a low end quote without including sales tax and a load allowance. Be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Often when these figures are included, their real quote is much higher.

Does the company providing your quote have an Energy Information Management System in place, to make sure that you are getting the best available rate?

Are they shopping your account to more than 1 provider. Each provider has a sweet spot (a market they are most competitive in). An independent broker who knows the market will be able to identify these providers and work to get the best price.

Information is power. Knowing what questions to ask will save you time and money.

There are opportunities to save from 10% to 25% in the deregulated electric market depending on your usage patterns.

When making a final decision, know that you are dealing with a commodity and timing is everything. Market fluctuations may happen on a daily basis.

Best Time

February 14, 2011

When is the best time to buy energy in the deregulated market?

I have heard statements from clients saying, “Let’s wait to July or August and then we’ll look at it.”

This seems to be a common misconception. When buying a commodity, we are dealing with a fluid market.

Prices are constantly changing.

During the last 4 years, we have seen the Nymex go from a high of $13.105 in July 2008 to a low of $2.843 in September of 2009.

What is the Nymex?

The current price of natural gas out of the ground in the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Louisiana.

When quoting fixed natural gas prices we must add the basis cost, which is the cost of transporting natural gas from the shores of Louisiana to the gate of the local provider (PSEG, SJ Gas, PGW, Peco  etc).

The Nymex is normally used as a gauge to determine where the natural gas and electric markets are at any given point of the day.

Nymex is up, means that gas and electric prices will be increasing

Conversely,

Nymex is down, means that gas and electric prices will be dropping.

This is not necessarily a proportional shift but it is a good indicator.

I went back over those 4 years and looked to see when the Nymex was at its’ highest and lowest points.

Year        Average Cost        Lowest   Month   Highest   Month

2007       $6.376 dth            $5.43      Sept        $7.558    April

2008       $8.437 dth            $6.469   Nov        $13.105   July

2009       $3.475 dth            $2.843     Sept      $6.136     Jan

2010       $3.908 dth            $3.292     Nov       $5.814     Jan

Our goal at HBS is to properly monitor the market swings and to communicate with our clients when the opportunities present the best value.

Dealing with a utility is not like dealing with other contracts in business.

You do not have to wait for the contract to expire.

There is no guarantee that the best opportunity will be available.

As of this writing the Nymex is at $3.93 and it is only mid-February.

Could the market go lower?

Yes..

But there is more of an upside risk!

Prices could easily go higher.

 

How much lower will the market go?

The floor is not determined until it passes

And then it may be too late.

When dealing with a commodity….

Timing is everything!

I often say that a client who buys deregulated utilities is like a person who shops at Syms.

“An educated consumer is our best customer.”

HBS strives to educate our clients and keep them informed,

Providing…

Smart Solutions for Smart Business

If you would like to know more about deregulated utilities and your business call 856-857-1230 or email george@hbsadvantage.com

Trade group looks to revise “price-to-compare” system that helps customers make informed choices about independent power suppliers
 
By Tom Johnson, January 28 in Energy & Environment |
With residential customers finally switching electricity suppliers, a trade group representing independent power companies is hoping the state revamps billing and other procedures to make it easier for consumers to shop for a cheaper energy.
For the first time since the state broke up its electric monopolies more than a decade ago, residential customers and small commercial operations have some choices about who supplies the power to light their homes and businesses.

Because of a steep drop in natural gas prices and the way the state buys electricity, independent power suppliers have an opportunity to undercut the price that public utilities offer customers.

“The big story on the retail electricity side has been the emergence of residential and small commercial markets,” agreed Jay Kooper, New Jersey state chair of the Retail Energy Suppliers Association, a trade group representing so-called Third-Party Suppliers (TPS).

Falling Prices

Until natural gas prices fell, more than 99 percent of residential customers elected to stay with their incumbent electric utility to buy their power, a fact that generated criticism of the state’s deregulation law. Other power suppliers found it hard to beat the price of the incumbents, in part because fuel costs had been rising and the state mitigated those spikes by buying power in chunks over three years, which tended to moderate those increases.

But when natural gas prices began falling more than a year ago, suppliers could undercut the price offered by the state, with some offering price discounts of up to 15 percent on the supply portion of customers’ bills. Nearly 100,000 customers have switched as of November, according to the most recent data compiled by the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU).

With customers looking around for options, the big question for third-party suppliers is how do they sustain the business, especially if natural gas prices begin rising.

To Kooper, the answer is to revamp the state’s policies in two key areas: how to deal with customers who fall behind in their bills and owe the third-party suppliers money and the so-called price-to-compare, a mechanism set up by the state to help customers shop for new suppliers.

“We need to dive into the nuts and bolts of the retail market to keep it sustainable for the long term,” Kooper said, noting the changes his group is seeking have already been adopted in other states with deregulated energy markets.

Gaining Momentum

Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon, who ordered the stakeholder hearings on the issue, said he is trying to take advantage of the momentum created by new suppliers coming into the market and make it easier for them to compete with the incumbents.

Without changes, Kooper said the suppliers will be subject to a “boom and bust” cycle when natural gas prices rise as they most inevitably will. What the suppliers are seeking is a level playing field to compete with the utilities, he said.

Along those lines, the group is advocating requiring the utilities to purchase the suppliers’ account receivables, or unpaid customer bills. Kooper argued such a change would be fair because utilities are already are protected from uncollected bills by a surcharge, which allows them to pay off those bills.

The group is also seeking to establish a uniform price-to-compare system because each of the four utilities uses a different scheme to help customers compare prices, according to Murray Bevan, counsel to the group.

“As retail markets evolve, it’s very important that price-to-compare is as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible,” Kooper said. “Without these mechanisms, it makes access to the smaller customers trickier and riskier.”

About Deregulation

January 27, 2011

As presented on PSEG website

Before Deregulation 

Prior to New Jersey’s restructuring, PSE&G was responsible for generating electricity, transmitting the power to all regions of their service territory, distributing the power to the individual homes and businesses, and billing and service issues.  In addition, they were also responsible for all repairs to the electric lines and equipment.

After Deregulation

As a result of the New Jersey Energy Choice Program, the different responsibilities of the utilities were “unbundled” and the power industry was separated into four divisions: generation, transmission, and distribution, and energy services. The generation sector has been deregulated and, as a result, utilities are no longer the sole producers of electricity. The transmission and distribution sectors remain subject to regulation – either by the federal government or the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.   No matter which electricity supplier you choose, PSE&G will continue to service the transmission and distribution sectors of your electricity.

Competition is allowed between companies to provide power at discounted rates and superb customer service directly to customers. These companies are licensed by the state of New Jersey.  You also have the opportunity to work with an electricity broker or consultant who can compare different offers and provide additional services to help manage your energy spending.

In most cases, PSE&G will continue to send you your utility bill.  So the only thing that changes if you shop for a better rate is that better rate.

Out Perspective

Deregulation has presented a great opportunity for savings in the business sector. If you are a company spending a minimum of $5000 a month on electric and you are not taking advantage of this opportunity, feel free to give us a call and we will present an overview. 856-857-1230

Or, if you would like to know more about deregulation opportunities for your business email george@hbsadvantage.com

HBS has been providing independent deregulated energy management solution to our business clients for over 10 years. We represent all the major deregulated energy providers selling energy in deregulated states.

Visit us on the web www.hutchinsonbusinesssolutions.com

David Parkinson – Globe and Mail Update Dec. 31, 2010 5:41PM EST

When Arthur Berman argues that natural gas is destined to have better prices in 2011 than it had in a mediocre 2010, he isn’t talking about technical price charts, or historical correlations, or relative valuations, or even supply-and-demand balances.

No, his view is more down to earth. He’s talking about geology.

“I’m a working petroleum geologist, I’m not a financial analyst,” said Mr. Berman, a prominent Houston-based energy consultant whose controversial views on the North American shale-gas phenomenon have raised eyebrows in the industry. “We probably have a lot less natural gas resource than is commonly believed. “So, what I see is that natural gas prices will not remain depressed. I’m not a price forecaster, but I have every reason to believe that a long position in natural gas [investing] is a smart position.”

The natural gas pricing story has been all about shale gas in 2010, and its fate in 2011 is closely tied to this big wild card, too. Thanks to advances in drilling technology for extracting gas from seams in shale rock, there has been a rapid expansion of drilling in shale plays that were once considered impossible to economically exploit. The resulting boom in production has unleashed substantial new supplies on the North American marketplace, outstripping demand and bloating inventories. Volumes of gas in U.S. storage facilities swelled to record levels last month – 40 per cent higher than they were 10 years ago, almost 20 per cent higher than five years ago – even as gas consumption has rebounded to near pre-recession levels.

That kept natural gas prices low and in decline for most of 2010. Even with the high-demand winter season approaching, prices struggled to stay above $4 (U.S.) per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange well into December – their weakest December prices in nearly a decade.

The majority of industry analysts believe the shale-gas boom will continue to keep supplies well above consumption levels in 2011, weighing down natural gas prices. “The fundamentals of oversupply are not likely to change in 2011,” said Peter Tertzakian, chief energy economist at ARC Financial Corp. in Calgary. “Since we expect U.S. natural gas demand growth to come to almost a standstill in 2011 and supply growth to stay in positive territory, the inventory glut remains a concern,” said analyst Dominic Schnider of UBS AG in a recent research note.

But a vocal minority – led by the likes of Mr. Berman and renowned long-time oil and gas forecaster Henry Groppe – believe shale gas may be a bubble that could begin to burst in 2011. They are concerned with both the extremely rapid rates at which production from new shale-gas wells drops off, and the high costs of development and production that suggest to them that producers won’t be willing to keep up the high pace of drilling in shale plays at these unprofitable prices much longer. “[Shale] is a great new resource. I don’t dispute for a moment the size of the resource or its importance,” said Mr. Berman, who, like Mr. Groppe, serves as a consultant to Toronto-based fund management company Middlefield Capital Corp. “What I question is, ultimately, what it will cost to produce the resource.” Mr. Berman’s analysis tells him that North American shale-gas reserves have been exaggerated; that “more than half of the commercial reserves are produced in the first year” of each well; and that the full costs for producing shale gas work out to about $7 per million BTU – far above the current selling price.

He believes companies have been encouraged to aggressively drill U.S. shale plays due to regulations requiring producers to either initiate drilling on their properties or lose them – they want to secure the land. But that won’t continue through 2011, he said. “As I listen to the comments of the executives of the companies that are most active in the shale plays in the U.S., they’re all saying that they’re going to continue to hold the land through the first half of 2011, and then you’re going to see a big decrease in [drilling] rig count,” Mr. Berman said. “They’re smart people; they’re not going to continue to do this beyond the time that they have to.” Instead, he said, companies will redirect their drilling rigs to oil properties, where the cost-to-price equation is much more profitable. That will slow natural gas volumes and change market perception of shale’s potential, he said – and that will push up prices. “It would not surprise me to see the end of 2011 start to see a notable recovery of price,” he said.

Mr. Tertzakian acknowledges that natural gas prices must eventually revert to at least high enough to cover “the marginal costs of producing natural gas in North America,” which he pegs at the $5 to $6 range. However, he doesn’t see that happening in 2011 – and he doesn’t envision a major drop-off in shale drilling or a serious hit to supplies over the next year. “There’s no shortage of gas in the ground. We can debate the technical nuances, but at the end of the day, it takes a certain amount of money to exploit these things – the only restriction is the availability of capital.” He expects some slowdown in natural-gas rig count in the second half of next year could moderate supplies, but that won’t do much to make up for what should continue to be a weak market in the first half – making for another year of 2010-like prices.

“Prices in 2011 will be similar to 2010,” agreed Bill Gwozd, vice-president of gas services at Calgary energy consulting and analysis firm Ziff Energy Group. “That’s not a healthy price for producers – but it’s quite nice for consumers.”