January 19

Existing utilities shoulder cost of Kennebec Valley natural gas boon

Water districts’ jobs have been complicated by the fuel’s rapid entry into the Augusta and Waterville area.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Natural gas’ 2013 entrée into the Kennebec Valley forced the capital city’s utility district to respond to nearly 3,000 requests to mark existing utility lines in the ground, about five times more than the year before.

click image to enlarge

COLD CALL: Summit Natural Gas of Maine salesman Nick Snowdeal speaks Wednesday with Hallowell home owner Cindy Lockwood about the location of a distribution line the company is hoping to install near her home. The arrival in 2013 of natural gas firms installing underground pipes in the Kennebec Valley has strained the resources of communities and utilities.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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FILLING IN: A contractor installs a distribution line Thursday across Second Street in Hallowell for Summit Natural Gas of Maine. The 2013 arrival of two natural gas companies in the Kennebec Valley has strained the resources of communities and utilities. Summit was connecting a gas line to the building that houses the Liberal Cup.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Additional Photos Below

And that’s just one example of the strain the area’s newest utility has put on municipalities and water districts that are understaffed and were unprepared for the unprecedented push toward natural gas.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas announced the start of pipeline construction in the first half of last year, with contractors working at a furious pace, often snarling traffic across the region, to complete the main pieces of the two networks.

The payoff, companies and public officials said, would be in the fuel.

Companies touted 30 to 50 percent savings on heating costs compared to oil, competing to sign up Augusta businesses. Summit built a far-reaching network, stretching from Pittston to Madison, while Maine Natural Gas focused more on the Augusta area.

But utility officials say there will be, and has been, cost associated with natural gas’ rapid expansion to the region.

Water districts spent much of 2013 monitoring quick-developing natural gas installation projects, delaying much of their own maintenance projects to respond to calls to mark the sites of existing utility lines.

“They’ve been running and we’ve been chasing them ever since,” said Paul Gray, superintendent of the Gardiner Water District.

Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, said employees were called to review dig sites more than 2,900 times in 2013, nearly five times more than the 612 requests it got in 2012, leading the district to hire a second employee to handle requests.

The Maine Water Utilities Association, an advocacy group for districts, is considering drafting proposed state legislation that would widen the horizontal distance between natural gas and other utilities in the ground, which he said was motivated by lines in central Maine coming too close for districts’ comfort.

“We don’t go looking for problems,” said Jeffrey McNelly, the association’s executive director, “but this caught us kind of unawares.”

Michael Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, said he realizes utilities are dealing with new challenges, but the benefits will outweigh costs.

“For some people, just having another utility in the ground is going to be too much,” he said. “The public way is a public resource and that goes to the taxpayer. I think they have the right to lower fuel costs.”

Watching the roads

The projects were made possible with road-opening permits, granted by the state and municipalities.

Augusta issued 170, and Lesley Jones, the public works director, said about half of her and her street superintendent’s time in 2013 was spent on permitting, compared to a small share of time in normal years.

“It’s the cost of progress,” she said. “We’re happy to have gas, but it was a hard year for us and the Greater Augusta Utility District.”

The Maine Department of Transportation regulates permitting state roads, while cities and towns manage their roads. The state also sets standards for natural gas pipelines’ proximity to other utilities.

Natural gas lines must be at least a foot horizontally from other utilities and on state roads, the transportation department requires three-foot separation, said Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an industry regulator.

Lanphear said his eight-employee electric and gas division, mostly comprised of lawyers and analysts, conducts financial investigations of utilities. Another five employees work on gas safety, conducting field investigations, evaluating process and working to ensure compliance with laws and rules.

He said during pipeline construction, employees are in the field watching crews “virtually every day.” It also enforces Maine’s dig safe laws, with the ability to penalize contractors who violate the law.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Gas impact: Brian Tarbuck of the Greater Augusta Utilities District at his Augusta office on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

  


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