For Unitil, ’11 was a gas

Unitil Corp.’s move into natural gas paid off big last year, the company reported.The Hampton-based firm said it had a net annual income of $16.3 million, or $1.50 per share — the largest profit in company history.About $10 million of that net income came in the fourth quarter of 2011, even though gas and electric usage were down thanks to a milder winter. But for the year, gas usage was up 8.1 percent, while electric usage dropped a half a percent.The company was able to improve the margins on those sales with a series of favorably rate cases.Some of the increased gas profit also was attributable to cuts in expenses of more than $4 million. But it also reflects long-term trends, as residents and owners have been switching from both oil and electricity toward gas for heat. And the base price of natural gas remains comparatively low.The company said gas now accounts for 45 percent of its operating revenue.Translating that usage into sales, Unitil said gas operating revenue has gone up 4 percent, to $159.2 million, while electricity revenue has declined by 10, percent to $188.1 million. At the same time, the amount Unitil spent on gas declined $7 million and the amount spent on electricity dropped by about $22 million.Unitil only got into the gas business in a large way in December 2008, when it purchased Northern Utilities Inc. and Granite State Gas Transmission Inc., practically doubling the number of customers and diversifying its offerings. — BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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