Natural Gas Distribution
Advancing Our Operations and the Customer Experience
Our natural gas business had a very strong year. Operating income grew to $231 million in 2010, compared to $204 million in 2009, and we added 17,000 customers.
In line with our long-term strategy, we continued to successfully implement rate designs, such as decoupling, weather normalization and automatic rate adjustments, in many of our service territories. These rate designs were key drivers of our operating income growth this year. Additionally, they help us avoid lengthy and costly rate cases and enable us to promote energy efficiency, aligning our interests with our customers. We'll continue to file rate cases as necessary to recover increasing costs of providing service.
New credit and collection policies reduced bad debt by $5 million in 2010. Our bad debt to revenue ratio is now less than 1 percent, compared with a national average that exceeds 2 percent for natural gas utilities.
As we position our company for the future, we are making intelligent investments in technology and exploring complementary business opportunities to enhance growth.
We are investing $85 million in drive-by meter reading technology over the next three years in our Houston service area. This system will enable us to read 10,000 meters per day, per vehicle compared to 500 meters per person today and will virtually eliminate the need to enter customers' yards, greatly enhancing customer satisfaction. This technology could also serve as a foundation to provide on-demand gas usage information to consumers and to shut-off gas meters automatically when gas leaks or unsafe levels of carbon monoxide are detected.
Today in Minnesota, we offer HVAC and appliance sales, repair, maintenance and service contracts to more than 226,000 customers. These home service offerings leverage our core capabilities, add incremental income and improve customer satisfaction. We are exploring the expansion of these products and services to other areas we serve.
Last year, we also introduced CenterPoint Energy Extras, a shopping discount platform for customers who use our online services. With more than 234,000 customers enrolled, this innovative utility offering encourages use of our website while providing enhanced customer satisfaction. Additionally, we are developing new online and telephone customer self-service options to further improve the customer experience.
We also see potential growth opportunities for our mobile energy solutions business. When pipelines are out of service for planned or unplanned outages, this business provides temporary natural gas supply until normal service can be restored.
Natural Gas: Our Wisest Energy Choice
Today's energy solution continues to be natural gas, which offers more savings, greater comfort and less impact on the environment. We continue to actively promote the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas, both in direct heating applications and as a fuel for electric power plants.
When used directly in a business or home, natural gas transfers more than 90 percent of its energy value, producing more heat and less carbon. Water heats two to three times faster with natural gas than with electricity, and natural gas furnaces are more efficient. Precision control, efficiency and speed also make natural gas the preferred stovetop fuel.
Natural gas is the most efficient, cost effective and cleanest-burning fossil fuel. It has half the carbon footprint of coal and 30 percent less than oil. It's an obvious choice for generating electric power.
Of course, using less energy is one of the very best ways to help the environment and our customers. In Arkansas and Minnesota, CenterPoint Energy's rebate programs make it easier for customers to install higher efficiency equipment for greater energy savings. We are working to offer these programs in other parts of our service territory.
Expanding the use of natural gas is our nation's most secure and wisest energy choice. With improvements in extraction technologies, it is estimated that the United States has sufficient natural gas reserves to meet demand for the next 100 years.
Natural Gas Distribution Gallery
We receive royalties from the sale of the StayLit™ meter bag, a patented invention developed by our employees that maintains uninterrupted service while natural gas meters are replaced.
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Natural Gas Distribution Highlights
Our bad debt expense fell 14 percent in 2010 from 2009.
Natural Gas Distribution Highlights
The new automated meter reading system will result in a 2,000 percent increase in meter reading productivity.