LANSING (AP) Consumers Energy”s natural gas customers will see their monthly bills increase between $15 and $25 this winter, the Jackson-based utility said yesterday.

November”s average monthly gas bill is expected to be $50.78, more than the average $42.86 bill at the same time last year.

The utility is charging $3.72 per thousand cubic feet for gas this month.

The average household uses 10,000 cubic feet per month.

In December, gas bills are expected to increase to an average $87.30 because the utility will charge $3.85 per thousand cubic feet of gas, an increase of 3.5 percent. Last December, the average monthly bill was $71.14.

Consumers Energy expects to continue charging $3.85 per thousand cubic feet until April 2002, but bills will fluctuate based on usage.

The winter increase is lower than the $40 to $60 hike Consumers Energy originally anticipated just before finishing its three-year contract with the state earlier this year to keep its rates frozen at $2.84 per thousand cubic feet.

Carl English, Consumers Energy president and chief executive officer for natural gas, said the utility”s 1.6 million gas customers are benefiting from good timing.

“Our frozen rate protected them from the big price jumps last winter,” English said. “Natural gas prices have dropped since then.”

November bills also will include a pamphlet outlining assistance programs available to low-income families who may have trouble paying their heating bills.

The Home Heating Credit is one of the ways customers could reduce their heating bills. Customers who apply for the credit beginning in January could receive up to $150 to help them afford their bills.

Earlier this week, Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. said it expects to charge gas customers around $4.50 per thousand cubic feet beginning on Jan. 1, 2002, up from $2.95 last year. The utility is scheduled to finish its three-year agreement to freeze prices on New Year”s Day.

MichCon serves 1.2 million natural gas customers in 550 communities, ranging from the Detroit area to western Lower Michigan, northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Meanwhile, SEMCO Energy Gas Company”s 262,000 gas customers, who live mainly in the Thumb area, will see their rates stay at $3.24 per thousand cubic feet until March 31, 2002.

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