February 20

Madison residents, businesses anticipate arrival of natural gas

After delays, Madison Paper Industries expects to have natural gas as a more affordable energy source within three weeks.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

MADISON — Natural gas is expected to flow to Madison Paper Industries within three weeks, while some residents could have access to natural gas for heating their homes by this spring, according to Summit Natural Gas and Madison Paper Industries officials.

Madison is the end point for the 68-mile natural gas pipeline being built by Summit Natural Gas that will stretch to south to Pittston. Numerous setbacks including weather delays and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by a subcontractor working on the pipeline have caused delays in its completion, but residents who gathered Thursday night for an information session on how to convert their home heating systems to natural gas said they were mostly excited about potential cost savings.

“I’m tired of the price of oil going up and up. The delays do concern me, but I think we also need to take into account that the weather lately hasn’t been conducive to construction and it is tricky to drill underground,” said Rose Niemann, 61, a resident.

“We are looking forward to the cost savings,” said Kim Mercier, another resident, who said she is interested in getting natural gas to her business, Pine Tree Redemption, and several rental properties in Madison.

More than 100 miles of distribution line have been built off the 68-mile main line. Gas is flowing in seven communities, including Augusta, Gardiner and Hallowell, and will start flowing in Waterville on Friday, said Mike Minkos, president of Summit Natural Gas of Maine.

“We’ve kept our commitment to central Maine and we’re excited about it. We’re looking forward to providing service to the area, and I think the key thing now is for people to know they don’t need to wait. We need to plan construction for pipeline to people’s homes now,” Minkos told an audience of about 60 residents gathered at Madison Junior High School. The session was requested by Madison town officials, who have encouraged residents to sign up for natural gas.

“Money saved is money that goes back into the economy. Nothing else we can do will give people that disposable income,” Town Manager Dana Berry said. “The more people that sign up, the more pipe we will get and the quicker it will be laid.”

In November, a series of delays disrupted pipeline construction in Randolph and Norridgewock, the only site where crews still are working to complete construction. That construction should be completed by the end of the month and could bring gas to some parts of Madison by the end of March, Minkos said.

The company’s plan for 2014 and 2015 is to expand its distribution system to homes, but in order for it to do so, residents will need to sign up for conversion of their home heating systems and the company will have to plan construction of service lines, Minkos said. Service line installation is free to all homes within 300 feet of the street. The price of natural gas for residential customers is $15.98 per decatherm, or cubic foot, the unit in which natural gas is measured. In addition, customers must pay $20 in service charges per month. The cost of natural gas is regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The area’s three large paper mills — Sappi, in Skowhegan; Huhtamaki, on the Waterville and Fairfield municipal line; and Madison Paper Industries — provided incentive for the company to expand the pipeline north of Augusta, Minkos said on Thursday.

“Those companies are what will make this profitable and have given us the incentive to make natural gas available to residents,” Minkos said. Both Sappi and Huhtamaki have agreements with the gas company for connection in the late spring.

Madison Paper Industries President and CEO Russ Drechsel said the company expects to have natural gas flowing to the paper mill within three weeks. Originally Summit had agreed to supply Madison Paper, the town’s largest property taxpayer and an employer of 225 people, with natural gas by Nov.1.

Drechsel said that although the company is disappointed about the delay, it is looking forward to the benefits of having natural gas, which will be used to create steam used as energy in the papermaking process.

“I think anytime you do anything underground, there are going to be delays that you run into. This winter hasn’t been an easy construction season,” said Drechsel, who would not disclose the financial savings the company expects to generate from the switch to natural gas but said it also looks forward to equipment and environmental savings with the switch. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and also generates less sulfur dioxide, a pollutant generated through burning oil.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 rohm@centralmaine.com

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