Energy prices a mixed bag for Arkansas consumers

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 120 views 

Energy budgets for Arkansas homeowners and motorists should get a little bit of relief over the next several months as pump prices and local electric and gas bills smooth out or even see a slight drop.

This week, the U.S. Energy Department said that gasoline prices in most regions of the U.S. will peak in May at just over $4 a gallon for regular unleaded, and then moderate throughout the summer to Labor Day.

“The question frequently posed by the news media as we head into summer, the peak driving season, is whether or not retail consumers will be paying more than $4 per gallon for regular gasoline when they fill up their tanks,” the Energy Information Administration said in its weekly petroleum report. “While the national average retail price for regular gasoline still hovers just under that mark at $3.94 per gallon on April 9, in many areas this question has already been answered.”

The answer for the Arkansas motorist is pump prices will likely not top $4 a gallon this summer, and will probably max out heading into the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer driving season. Retail prices are already well over $4 a gallon in many East and West coast cities, where prices are generally 30 cents to 50 cents higher than in Arkansas and the Midwest.

According to the EIA, regular gasoline retail prices are forecasted to average about $3.95 per gallon between now and September peaking in May at a monthly average price of $4.01 per gallon. EIA expects regular gasoline retail prices to average $3.81 per gallon in 2012, up 8% from $3.53 per gallon in 2011.

In Arkansas this week, pump prices are averaging about $3.71 for a gallon of regular unleaded. Prices in the state’s metropolitan areas range from a low of $3.66 per gallon in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area to a high of $3.80 per gallon in the Pine Bluff area, according to AAA’s daily fuel gauge.

Motorists in the Fort Smith and Little Rock-North Little Rock area are seeing prices at $3.76 per gallon, while travelers to Texarkana are paying an average of $3.79 a gallon to fill up their tanks.

Drivers choosing to fill up the tanks with a higher-grade of gasoline are paying a premium of $4.04 a gallon across the state. Big rig drivers and other diesel fuel users are paying about $4.03 a gallon, only three cents higher than a year ago.

Meanwhile, electricity generation from coal has declined by about 10 percent in 2012, and generation from cheap natural gas has spiked about by about 17 percent, the EIA says.

That trend, which began at the end of 2011, is already causing some consumers in Arkansas and rest of the nation to see lower election and gas bills in the first quarter of 2012. And with natural gas prices just under $2 per 1,000 cubic feet on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Thursday, utilities are rushing to add more natural gas to their fuel mix or bring gas-powered power plants online.

Two weeks ago, CenterPoint Energy announced to its consumers in Arkansas and Oklahoma that their gas bills will see a substantial decrease this month.

The Houston-based utility giant said gas supply rate adjustments will lower an average April Arkansas residential gas bill using 50 CCF (hundred cubic feet) of natural gas by 30 percent compared to last year. This means a bill that was $76.47 last April will be $53.51 next month.

Entergy Arkansas has not announced if its more than 692,000 customers across the state will see lower electric bills this summer.

“Our system is still largely nuclear, nearly 70 percent,” Entergy Arkansas spokeswoman Julie Munsell said of the state's largest utility’s fuel mix.

Several electric utilities across the country with a more diversified fuel mix, including one of Entergy Arkansas’ sister utilities, have already lowered rates as more natural gas enters the nation’s electric grid.

Entergy Texas’ customers using an average 1,000 kilowatt-hour per month are seeing a residential bill of $81.28, a drop of almost $33. The new lower price for Entergy’s Texas customers began in March and will remain in place until September.

Also, Entergy Louisiana is proceeding with plans to build a state-of-the-art 550-megawatt gas turbine generating unit at its existing Ninemile Point Station.

“We generate electricity using a variety of fuels, including natural gas and nuclear,” Entergy Louisiana President and CEO Bill Mohl said in a news release. “It’s a successful strategy that’s working for our customers, and the Ninemile plant will enhance this effort.”

Entergy Arkansas, Entergy Texas and Entergy Louisiana are all independent subsidiaries of New Orleans-based utility giant Entergy Corp.