BANGOR, Maine — After initially starting with barely a whiff of customers, Bangor Gas Co. these days needs the equivalent of a high-pressure line to handle the influx of people converting to natural gas.
“We’ve almost quadrupled the number of our customers in four years,” said Jonathan Kunz, manager of marketing and sales for Bangor Gas. “Over one thousand new customers converted or are converting during this 2012 construction season, which is now full for this season.”
Due to the large volume of requests for service, Bangor Gas is already accepting applications for 2013.
Getting swamped by requests for gas line connections was a pipe dream for Bangor Gas officials 12 years ago, when gas first started pumping through lines being built by the then-two-year-old company.
“We started in 1998 and it was very slow growth up until around 2007,” said Kunz. “A hundred to two hundred customers a year was typical to that point. But in early 2008, the same time we were sold by Sempra to Energy West, things really started taking off.”
Kunz said at that point, two major developments occurred: The price gulf between gas and oil began expanding massively, and customers started believing that Bangor Gas was here to stay.
“That year we did over 500 customers. When price didn’t change and started affecting more people, we went to 1,000 customers a year on average from 2010 to the present day,” he explained.
Kunz and Jerry Livengood, Bangor Gas general manager, said their 1,000-customer-per-year goal has been easily reachable, and they don’t expect that will change next year. They also said they annually use up all of their capital budget dedicated to costs associated with building and expanding their network of gas lines from Bangor to Old Town. The company also has two major customers in Bucksport, one being the Verso Paper mill, but has not begun providing service for private customers yet.
Brewer leads the way with 30 to 40 percent of its potential customers having access to natural gas lines. Old Town is next at about 30 percent, and Bangor follows at around 25, according to Livengood.
Still, heating oil customers in Maine still make up 70 percent of the market.
That doesn’t deflate Kunz’s optimism at all.
“Optimistically, the number of oil consumers in Maine will drop below 50 percent, and I definitely think it’s possible,” he said.
Another early problem for Bangor Gas — repair of ground and pavement dug up during line installation on city and neighborhood streets, sidewalks and lawns — is much less of a problem now.
Earlier this year, the Bangor City Council temporarily suspended the issuance of permits for Bangor Gas to install lines due to complaints from residents about the lack of cleanup done after lines were installed.
“The contractor who was hired to do that work went out of business and we weren’t notified, so it fell behind a few weeks between installation and repairing pavement,” Kunz said. “Gardner Construction came on to take that over and once that happened, we’ve had no complaints. They came on board right after the council put a hold on our permits and we haven’t had any trouble since.”
The company’s gas line construction season runs roughly from April through Thanksgiving, weather permitting. The company can now install more line in a shorter time than it used to with a much bigger workforce and collection of equipment.
“It’s definitely much easier to install lines now than we did in 1999, with two drill crews of our own along with having our own excavating crews and equipment like excavators, dump trucks and borers to keep up with growth.”
Even with all its expanded company resources, Bangor Gas is still using just as many contractors as it had been when it had virtually no company equipment.
“Growth came with so much change from the previous years that we were slow to keep up with demand and there was basically a traffic jam,” Kunz said. “Now we’re ahead of the game.”