Q/A with a natural gas executive: Utility rebranding as clean energy

Piedmont Natural Gas chief executive Thomas Skains has a lot on his mind these days.

As gas production increases and prices drop, the Charlotte-based utility is rebranding itself as part of a clean, expanding segment of the U.S. energy market. Piedmont serves about 1 million customers in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Skains also faces some troubling signs as Piedmont adds far fewer customers from new home construction than it did a few years ago, and a recent customer-satisfaction survey ranked the company at the bottom among large Southern gas utilities.

An explosion in California last month, meanwhile, killed eight people, raising concerns about the safety of gas pipelines. The Gulf oil spill debacle soured some of the public on expanding offshore drilling for oil and gas. And federal regulators are taking a new look at the potential of shale drilling to contaminate groundwater.

Skains and other Piedmont officials made news last week in announcing a winter forecast that projects customers' bills may fall by up to 20 percent to 25 percent or an average of $30 to $35 a month. They also talked with energy-environment writer Bruce Henderson and Observer editors about the company's direction. His comments are edited for clarity and space.

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