Wednesday, December 11, 2013
AUGUSTA — Summit Natural Gas of Maine, one of two companies fighting the Kennebec Valley's natural gas war, has sent form letters to residents in the region and handed out stickers to children at the Old Hallowell Day parade last month.
The other company, Maine Natural Gas, has taken out strongly worded newspaper and radio advertisements, trying to punch holes in public opinion of the competition's bigger pipeline plan by touting lower rates to consumers.
The public relations ramp-up could muddy the water for the thousands of potential consumers in Augusta who have to make a decision soon between Summit and Maine Natural Gas, or simply decide whether to convert their homes to using natural gas.
Maine Natural Gas spokesman Daniel Hucko said Thursday that the company's pipeline, coming into Augusta from Windsor, will cross the Kennebec River in the next few weeks and will serve its first Augusta customers by September's end.
Already, Hucko said, the company has signed 173 customers, 40 percent of whom are residential. Among its larger customers are the University of Maine at Augusta and the Alfond Center for Health, the new north Augusta hospital set to open in November.
Summit's website says by 2013's end, natural gas will be available in parts of Augusta, Hallowell, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Fairfield, Waterville and Madison.
Michael Duguay, Summit's director of business development, didn't respond to messages requesting comment for this story, but his company has signed big-ticket clients in wide-ranging areas, including three paper mills: Huhtamaki Packaging in Waterville, UPM Madison and Sappi Fine Paper's Somerset Mill in Skowhegan.
On average, homeowners who switch from No. 2 heating oil to natural gas would save nearly $1,100 per year in energy costs if using standard boilers or furnaces, according to data from Gov. Paul LePage's energy office.
In the capital area, however, each company has a distinct advantage: Summit with size, Maine Natural Gas with price.
In short, those whose homes pipelines from both companies pass by would pay less for Maine Natural Gas, particularly those who don't have the money up front to convert their homes.
Summit, however, will pass by more homes and has better rebates for those who need money to help with a conversion.
Summit, a subsidiary of Colorado-based Summit Utilities, is building a far bigger pipeline than Maine Natural Gas is, originating in Windsor and reaching from Richmond to Madison at an estimated cost of $350 million with a larger focus on residential customers.
According to the Augusta study, it hopes to serve 15,000 residential customers from Madison to Richmond by the pipeline's third year of operation.
The immediate focus of Maine Natural Gas' estimated $54 million pipeline is on Augusta, where it hopes to serve 70 percent of businesses and residential customers, around 7,500 customers by the third year of operation.
The company, a subsidiary of Iberdrola USA, the owner of Central Maine Power Co., has tried to blunt criticism of the smaller scope of the plan by citing cost figures and their reputation and history in Maine.
The company, which already serves customers Windham, Gorham, Bowdoin, Topsham and Brunswick, has said it would expand to other parts of the Kennebec Valley if economically feasible.
Even in Augusta, however, Summit is thinking bigger: Maine Natural Gas plans 57 miles of distribution pipeline in Augusta, about 35 percent of the 161 miles Summit plans to build in the city. Summit is investing $95 million in the city; Maine Natural Gas, $54 million.
Summit's goal is to convert 90 percent of residences, bringing gas mains to every neighborhood in Augusta. It also will serve residential swaths of Hallowell and Gardiner, unlike Maine Natural Gas.
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