PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With the turn of a valve, The Aroostook Medical Center on Monday afternoon became the first facility in the state and only second in the nation to convert to compressed natural gas for heating and cooling, according to hospital officials.
Despite the breezy temperatures, more than 60 people turned out for the ceremony, which took place near the decompression station behind the health care facility on Academy Street. The crowd included state, regional and local leaders, as well as crews who have been a part of the project since the groundbreaking ceremony last October.
Stored under high pressure, this form of natural gas is one of the cleanest and safest fuels available.
Sylvia Getman, president and CEO of the hospital, said that the entire project has been a team effort, and that the forward thinking hospital staff continues brainstorming ways that they can cut costs at a time when health care expenses are skyrocketing. She also said that the project’s impact on the environment could not be overlooked.
“The switch to [compressed natural gas] promises to reduce TAMC’s fuel costs by a significant percentage,” said Getman. “While the actual savings will vary based on the ultimate cost of the fuels, the savings is projected to be between $400,000 and $500,000 per year.”
Total startup costs for the compressed natural gas conversion project were approximately $300,000, so a return on investment is expected in less than one year. TAMC officials announced Monday that they also intend to expand the use of compressed natural gas in the future to include powering the hospital’s clothes dryers and cooking ovens.
Prior to the start of construction and throughout the process, TAMC worked with partners Mechanical Services, Inc. and New England-based XNG (Xpress Natural Gas) to develop specific details for the conversion.
Mechanical Services introduced the concept of compressed natural gas to TAMC and provided the expertise for the boiler house piping and burner conversion.
XNG is the first company in Maine to haul compressed natural gas for heating use, and provides the trailers, decompression station, and compressed natural gas. The trucks containing the compressed natural gas travel to Presque Isle from Baileyville in Washington County and must meet very stringent safety standards. They are designed to survive a rollover at highway speeds without rupturing.
When traveling to TAMC, they use the Centerline and Easton roads to avoid the heavy traffic and sharp turn onto Academy Street in downtown Presque Isle.
The decompression station lowers the pressure and transfers the gas into an underground pipeline, which runs along the eastern boundary of the hospital property and crosses a parking lot to connect with and feed the boiler plant. The existing burners on TAMC’s boilers were converted to burn compressed natural gas with only minor modification. They can also burn No. 2 heating oil as a back-up fuel.
James McKenney, TAMC vice president for diagnostic and support services, said that he believed that compressed natural gas was the perfect way for the hospital to cut its energy costs while also reducing the size of its carbon footprint.
“We investigated several different options, including wind power and biomass,” he explained. “Given the low start-up costs and stable natural gas market, we assessed that [compressed natural gas] was the most cost-effective option.”
The effort to seek state approval for TAMC and other such projects was supported by the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, which formed a Natural Gas Working Group to champion the cause and tackle the barriers and rules implementation with state regulators. The Aroostook Partnership for Progress was instrumental in working with state and local officials, including representatives of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Fuels Board and Fire Marshall’s Office to help finalize natural gas operating parameters and eliminate permitting obstacles.