November 12, 2013

As winter sets in, Kennebec Valley’s natural gas rivals shift focus

Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas say they will work through winter to hook up customers to help lower heating bills.

By Michael Shepherd
Staff Writer

With winter setting in, bundled-up crews of contractors worked around Kennebec County on Tuesday, repairing road surfaces above Summit Natural Gas of Maine’s regional pipeline.

click image to enlarge

HEADWAY: Workers from McGee Construction, of West Gardiner, patch a gas pipeline trench Tuesday in Hallowell. The subcontractors are working for Summit Natural Gas of Maine laying the energy line across Central Maine.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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WORK IN PROGRESS: Subcontractors bury recently installed natural gas pipeline along the Middle Road in Fairfield on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

The work is expected to be finished by month’s end.

Meanwhile, Maine Natural Gas, whose Augusta-centric pipeline was finished in October, announced it has turned gas on at the University of Maine at Augusta.

The onset of winter will bring a new focus for the dueling natural gas companies. Both Summit and Maine Natural Gas officials said snow and cold shouldn’t stop them from building distribution lines to customers’ properties. Construction will soon end for Summit, which is building a $350 million main pipeline from Richmond to Madison, a project that has stopped traffic throughout the Kennebec Valley for months.

Pipeline work on public roads is expected to end in the next two weeks, Michael Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, said Monday. He said crews are mostly buttoning up sites where pipe is installed, finishing paving work before the real cold begins.

Duguay said the system should be energized and be able to serve bigger business customers by mid-December region-wide, with the Augusta area ready before the Waterville area. He said some customers have agreements in hand to have gas by the end of 2013, so the company’s first priority will be to connect them. They’ll also be looking at where to expand their network into 2014 and 2015.

“It’s pretty clear that this 68-mile backbone enables us to serve the communities of Maine,” Duguay said.

Duguay said the company will continue to sign up customers into the winter to add to its current roster of approximately 1,200 business, residential and public customers. High-profile clients include three paper mills in the upper Kennebec Valley: Huhtamaki Packaging in Waterville, UPM Madison and Sappi Fine Paper’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan.

The winter plan is similar for Maine Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Iberdrola USA, the owner of Central Maine Power.

That company announced completion of its 21-mile pipeline from Windsor to Augusta in late October. The Alfond Center for Health, Augusta’s new hospital operated by MaineGeneral Health on the city’s rural north side, was using the gas almost immediately. UMA signed a five-year contract with the company in July.

There will still be contractors on the roads around town for Maine Natural Gas, however. Daniel Hucko, a company spokesman, said the company will work through December to install service lines and extensions in Augusta, unless there’s both two feet of snow and “prolonged below-zero temperatures.” He said the company will continue signing up customers for 2014, and it has 253 business, residential and public customers already.

Hucko said crews are now on Edison Drive, which is off Western Avenue behind the Turnpike Mall, working to serve hotels and apartments there, and more are working on Sewall Street to establish residential hook-ups. Crews will soon move to Leighton Road to do residential work, he said. Connections were recently finished on Civic Center Drive and Anthony Avenue in north Augusta, he said.

That’s welcome news to Tammy Jo LaCroix, an executive assistant at the America’s Mattress and Furniture Gallery store on Civic Center Drive. The gas line is ready for the store, which plans to convert its systems from propane to natural gas later this week, she said.

People living in an average Maine home could have an average $1,600 in annual savings by converting from propane to natural gas, according to data from Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office. A $1,200 savings is projected if going to gas from No. 2 heating oil.

When the furniture store finally converts, the company — working out of a drafty, converted warehouse building — is projected to slash its annual heating bill by a third, paying off costs of conversion in a year, LaCroix said.

She said converting wasn’t her decision, but she urged it almost as soon as she knew natural gas was coming. She also takes some credit.

“I’m only the office manager, but I totally talked the boss into it,” LaCroix said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652 Twitter: @mikeshepherdme
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