Gov. Paul LePage is right to say Maine needs natural gas. But getting more of the clean-burning, affordable fuel into the state will require a continued long-term effort on the part of not just the government, but also businesses, industrial operations and residents.
Natural gas pipeline networks are market-driven and will be built only where there is the demand to justify the cost of building them. The reality is that natural gas will likely not be piped to every rural area of the state. But, with oil currently costing about eight times as much as natural gas on an energy-equivalent basis, gas will become a greater part of the energy mix. Maine should be prepared to take advantage of the inexpensive resource to not only heat more homes but, when possible, generate more electricity and power vehicles.
Natural gas distributors need to build the infrastructure now in areas where it’s viable to do so, which may create more demand and more opportunities for different uses. The process is currently on standby in central Maine, where Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural gas are awaiting a decision from the state’s Bureau of General Services on which distributor will build an Augusta-area pipeline.
Natural gas is present in portions of Maine’s more populated areas. Unitil delivers natural gas to parts of the Portland area, Lewiston, Auburn and Kittery. Bangor Gas serves parts of Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Orono and Veazie. Maine Natural Gas serves parts of Windham, Gorham, Bowdoin, Topsham and Brunswick. In addition, natural gas is the dominant fuel for electricity generation in Maine and has accounted for at least 40 percent of generation since 2001, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Portland, about half the bus fleet runs on natural gas.
Expanding the current piping network is complicated because putting in lines will mostly be up to private companies — although public entities can pursue doing so as well — and potential usage must to be high enough to warrant construction. No bank or investor will loan a company the money to build a line if the company can’t demonstrate its anticipated return; the Maine Public Utilities Commission requires a great enough demand, too. So this is where the matter gets local.
Town officials can work with interested pipeline developers and educate their communities about realistic benefits. Some industrial users, such as mills, have already found a way to operate with natural gas — either by connecting to an existing line, trucking in compressed natural gas or using it to generate electricity on site — but some have not yet made the change. They can examine whether to do so and be prepared.
Residents, landlords and business owners can educate themselves about what it will take, financially and logistically, to convert their heating systems or burners. They should check into getting home energy audits and be aware of whether they could qualify for low-interest loans from Efficiency Maine. And pipeline distributors can make every effort to build out their systems in every area that wants natural gas — as efficiently and safely as possible.
The state’s role is to ensure that projects meet technical and safety guidelines and to be responsive to the needs of potential customers, in addition to any unnecessary regulations. This year, for example, the Legislature passed a law allowing natural gas pipelines to be built for private use by a single customer.
In many parts of Maine, natural gas can’t get there fast enough. In the Bangor area, for example, the demand is so high that Bangor Gas — which connects to the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline — has at least 100 customers it can’t hook up each year because of the short construction window. The demand spiked in 2008 in response to the price spread between natural gas and oil, and the company has been installing up to 1,000 new customers each year. Customers generally see a return on their initial investment in one to three years.
Natural gas has been a lifesaver for many businesses. Paul Cook, a commercial property owner in Bangor, said converting his large buildings to natural gas allowed him to keep rents stable and complete needed repairs as operating costs increased. He was able to save $100,000 in five years. “It would be like hitting a grand slam home run in the last inning of a championship game. That’s how big it’s been,” he said.
Futures traders predict that natural gas prices won’t stay as low as they are now, but they will likely remain competitive with oil. If they are correct, and if deposits in places like the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and off Sable Island in Nova Scotia are as full as they’re estimated to be, and if states and the country can continue to address the politics of environmental concerns, it makes a lot of sense to build out natural gas infrastructure in Maine. Natural gas is not as clean as renewable energies, like solar, but it burns cleaner than coal and oil. The combustion of natural gas produces mainly carbon dioxide and water vapor, while coal and oil release higher levels of carbon emissions, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and ash.
As older coal plants in New England are retired, Maine can build bigger natural gas lines better able to support the generation of more electricity. It will also need more infrastructure if it’s going to build compressor stations to provide natural gas to long-distance truckers and more bus fleets. Many homes, long dependent on heating oil, want to switch. In addition to making the state more attractive to businesses considering moving here, expanding natural gas infrastructure allows Maine to reduce its dependence on fuel from volatile regions of the world. Natural gas is a resource worth using to its fullest potential.