NEW ORLEANS, Miss. (AP) - Energy bills for Louisiana customers are expected to be lower this summer.

Natural gas prices have fallen from more than $13 per million British thermal units to $3.56 per million Btu over a year's time. Last summer, power bills were so high that the state declared an energy emergency to give people more time to pay their bills.

Electricity customers in Louisiana pay for the utilities' cost of producing electricity in the base rates on their bills, then pay a separate charge for the cost of fuel used to produce electricity. Those fuel charges are volatile; they're closely tied to the cost of natural gas.

From June 2008 to June 2009, the fuel charges, or "fuel and purchased power costs," have fallen by 77 percent at Entergy New Orleans Inc. At Entergy Louisiana LLC, which serves suburban New Orleans and a handful of customers in St. Tammany, "fuel adjustment charges" have fallen by 53.2 percent.

Renae Conley, president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana, said the fall in natural gas prices comes "as we enter the summer season, when electricity use is typically the highest."

Utilities don't make profits on the fuel; they simply pass on to customers the cost of the fuel they purchased to generate power.

"It doesn't look as bad" as last year, said Keith Crump, vice president of regulatory retail operations and resource planning for

Cleco Power LLC, another Louisiana power supplier. Cleco's fuel adjustment has fallen by 36.2 percent.

Tracie Boutte, vice president of regulatory affairs for Entergy New Orleans, said her company was able to buy gas at about $4 per million Btu for the summer.

Although electricity bills have come down, advocacy groups said their clients are still having trouble paying their bills.

"On the average day we get two to three disconnect cases, which means the person has not been able to pay their bills for the past few months," said Howard Rodgers, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, which receives money from Entergy's "Power to Care" program to help people who are elderly and disabled pay their bills.

"There's still a great hardship out here for people trying to pay their utility bills," Rodgers said.