Natural gas expansion in Bucksport hangs on customer interest

Posted Jan. 17, 2012, at 10:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 18, 2012, at 5:58 a.m.

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Construction of natural gas lines into Bucksport’s commercial and residential district could begin as early as next April. But how far those lines go into town will depend on how many customers sign up for service, residents were told Tuesday.

Bangor Gas Co. is moving forward with plans to extend the existing natural gas infrastructure from the Verso Paper mill on the outskirts of downtown to Bucksport’s public schools. Although nothing has been formally approved yet, company representatives are notifying homeowners and business owners along the planned route to gauge their interest in connecting.

The proposed path follows the route to the public schools and includes sections of Franklin Street, Broadway and Central Street as well as some side streets in the area.

“That does not mean that if we have a lot of people requesting service from a different street that we will not bring you service,” Jon Kunz, marketing and sales manager for the company, told about 40 people attending a forum Tuesday night. “Nothing is set in stone … and if we get a lot of requests for service from Main Street then we will go to Main Street.”

The number of requests for service not only affects the extent of the expansion but also the costs to the town.

Town officials have agreed to contribute $240,000 toward construction costs but the municipality’s exact contribution would go up or down depending on how many other customers sign up with Bangor Gas. As of Tuesday, fewer than 15 homes and commercial customers had tentatively signed up. Factoring in the schools, the town’s contribution would stand at roughly $300,000.

But Kunz said the process of recruiting new customers is just beginning so he expects that number to go down significantly. In fact, those figures do not include the addition of the town’s public safety building, which Town Council members voted last week to connect to gas.

Demand for natural gas has increased dramatically in Maine in recent years as the price of heating oil has risen. According to figures supplied by Kunz, natural gas costs about one-third the price of heating oil. But switching from oil to gas costs money, which was the other major focus of Tuesday’s forum at the Bucksport Middle School.

Several speakers said the costs to convert an existing oil-fired furnace or boiler to natural gas often ranges from $1,800 to $2,500.

Butch Osborne, a local heating service contractor, said most oil-fired furnaces or boilers can be converted to natural gas. Some homeowners with older furnaces might be better off purchasing a new gas-fired unit, however. Osborne and others recommended that homeowners get several estimates on conversion costs.

Those in attendance also heard presentations from a representative of Efficiency Maine, which offers a 4.99 percent loan that is tied to the property, as well as representatives from several local banks offering loans for home improvements. Town Manager Roger Raymond said Bucksport officials also are applying for a Community Development Block Grant that would allow the town to offer grants to low- to moderate-income households to help them cover costs.

School officials with RSU 25 have estimated that Bucksport schools consume more than 70,000 gallons of heating oil annually. At current oil prices, school officials estimate the payback period to convert to natural gas will be 13 to 14 months.

“The money we are going to be saving is huge,” Gary Moulton, director of maintenance at RSU 25, told the group. And those savings will show up in the school budget, he added.

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