Note: This column originally ran on Sept. 2, 2017.

Fall is almost here, and with that come questions from readers about natural gas pricing.

For some time, I’ve been recommending the Standard Choice Offer (SCO) via Dominion East Ohio. The SCO is a monthly variable based on a state-approved formula. This year’s formula is at zero, meaning the SCO is at wholesale prices.

After some detailed analysis and a check-up on rates, including spot-checks on area aggregations (community bulk-buying rates), I’m still comfortable staying with the low rates of the SCO. It has been a low of $2.58 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) in March and a high of $3.88/mcf in January. The August price was $2.97/mcf and the just-announced Sept rate, effective Sept. 13, is $2.96/mcf.

A spot check of current fixed price contracts ranges from $2.99/mcf to $4.99/mcf, some with high cancellation fees.

At the end of the column, I will review how to get the SCO, or you can also get more detailed step-by-step instructions and information on electricity online here.  I update that column every month with the latest SCO price.

The only exception for an area aggregation plan that is worth considering is through NOPEC, or the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council. The consortium of 220 governments and more than 330,000 customers up to now has mostly included northern Summit County and Portage County in our area.

This spring, Summit County Council approved NOPEC for its natural gas contract, which is to begin in October.

So in the past week or so, 8,400 postcards have gone out to all Summit County townships and residents of the city of New Franklin. (Summit County’s aggregation contract is not for other communities in the county; most have their own aggregations).

Aggregations are based on ballot approvals by voters, mostly in the early 2000s. So unless you have specifically chosen a marketer on your own, say for a fixed or variable rate (the SCO doesn’t count), then you will receive a letter and you will automatically be included in the aggregation unless you opt out by mail or a phone call.

While those of us on the SCO actively chose it, you will still be included in a community aggregation unless you permanently opt out (instructions are in that online column).

Back to NOPEC — and here’s where it gets a little confusing.

NOPEC usually offers two programs to its natural gas customers: what it calls its “program price,” which is typically competitive with the market and can change anywhere from monthly to every 60 days or so, and a variable price that is guaranteed to be 2 cents/mcf below the SCO. NOPEC customers automatically get the program price unless they specifically call for the 2-cent-below plan. A note about that plan: while it beats the SCO by 2 cents — and that’s good, given the cheap prices of the SCO — the average residential customer uses 100 mcf a year. So we’re talking about a $2 a year savings — don’t lose any sleep over this.

NOPEC customers in the 220 communities who are already with NOPEC (non-Summit County folks) currently have a “program price” of $2.95/mcf for August. That price will remain for September and has been changing monthly as NOPEC officials buy their gas supply.

New to NOPEC

For the new NOPEC customers, or those in Summit County townships and New Franklin, your program price will be $2.99/mcf fixed beginning with the October billing cycle through December. You also have access to that 2-cent-below the SCO price, if you request it. NOPEC Executive Director Chuck Keiper said he hopes to have all of the NOPEC customers on the same price by the new year.

My advice for those in a NOPEC community is that either of these options is fine. Keiper said the options are available for people to decide. The program price is sometimes slightly above or below the SCO.

“Our strategy is always to keep people in the bottom 3 to 5 percent of the market,” he said. “If you don’t mind watching [the market]...then you want the guaranteed 2-cents-below option.”

Most people choose the program price, Keiper said. “Most people want to take their hands off the wheel,” he said.

Since I think the SCO is fine, I would recommend the 2-cent-below program — though again, I think either is fine.

To opt out, you must either mail back the postcard you received in the mail or fax it to 800-238-5679 by Sept. 12 or you will be included automatically. If you want to join NOPEC’s program price, you don’t need to do anything. If you want the 2-cent-below price, you must call NOPEC at 855-667-3201 and it does not automatically renew.

Another footnote: If you were on the ball and mailed in your opt-out postcard last week as soon as they arrived, you may have noticed that the postcards were going to an address in Houston. Keiper said there was initial worry that the postcards were stuck in a regional postal facility since the Houston office was underwater, but the postcards have been located and are being redirected to another location. But if you are worried and want to ensure that your opt-out is registered so you don’t accidentally get moved to NOPEC’s rates, you can call NOPEC at the number above.

Another housekeeping item for all NOPEC customers: since Summit County’s folks came within NOPEC’s current contract, and because NOPEC wants to get all of its customers in the same cycle, all customers will be included in the next opt-out mailing in late January. So if you don’t want NOPEC at that time, you will have to opt out again.

This NOPEC opt-out also is not for electricity; Summit County customers are still on an aggregation plan with FirstEnergy Solutions.

Update 9/20: If you are an existing Summit County Township aggregation customer with Constellation, you were part of the group that erroneously didn't get letters sent out in time. Read this column for the latest. 

Akron, Cuyahoga Falls

A quick note on two other area-aggregations.

City of Akron voters in March 2016 approved a ballot issue to create a natural gas aggregation. City officials are still working on that and likely will not have a decision until late winter or early spring, said the mayor’s chief of staff, James Hardy.

Also, the city of Cuyahoga Falls’ aggregation opt-out letters are due by Sept. 14. It’s new rate through March 2018 is $3.46/mcf. In my opinion, that’s too high.

So if you live in Akron or the Falls, I’d suggest you go with the SCO.

If you inadvertently get switched to an aggregation, call Dominion and say you want to switch back, but you will have to go through the process to switch and remember, you must request the SCO.

There are also several other communities with contracts expiring and new prices coming — but they aren’t until later this fall, so that information isn’t out. Use the same advice when deciding whether those are worth it.

To get the SCO

I would urge you to pull out your bill and do a spot-check. Some people think they’re on the SCO and they’re not, or they’ve chosen a fixed rate and let things slip and now they’re overpaying.

(If you live in the Columbia Gas territory, your pricing structures are different, but the principles are the same and the SCO would also be my choice.)

Look on your bill to find the letters “SCO.” The supplier doesn’t really matter; if the SCO letters are there, you are getting that price. It takes two months to switch to the SCO, and if you have the letters MVR (a nonregulated rate, which can be higher), call Dominion and tell them you want the SCO.

If you are still on a rate higher than the SCO, find out how much time is left on your contract and if there is a cancellation fee. Some fees can be hefty — but you likely will save — if your rate is high.

The average household uses about 100 mcf of gas a year. Take the difference between prices and multiply by 100 to see the savings.

To switch to the SCO, call Dominion at 800-362-7557 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Mondays tend to be the among the busiest days, so perhaps pick a different day to call.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty