BUCKSPORT, Maine — After 13 years of negotiations and six months of construction, natural gas is finally running through Bucksport’s new pipelines this week.
Construction on a pressure reduction station and natural gas pipelines began in June and is now complete, said Andrew Barrowman, sales and marketing manager for Bangor Gas Co. The company was testing the gas and installing meters this week.
Barrowman did not say the exact date that the approximately 65 residents who have applied for natural gas will be able to make the switch, but he said, “Bangor Gas intends to get them all online to use the fuel this winter.”
Bucksport’s four schools and the Regional School Unit 25 administrative building are first in line to get their gas turned on, which is supposed to happen by the end of this week, according to Barrowman.
With the switch, Bucksport joins a statewide movement toward natural gas. The portion of Maine households using natural gas is significantly lower than the national standard in 2011, according to numbers on the U.S. Energy Information Administration website. But, Gov. Paul LePage has been supportive of this less expensive type of energy and interest in natural gas in Maine is growing.
“A lot of the reason for that is that natural gas prices have gone down significantly and that is because of the impact of shale gas nationwide,” said Thomas Kiley, president of the Northeast Gas Association.
Natural gas prices remain higher in Maine than in other parts of the country, but in the last five years, purchasing natural gas has become more financially viable here, according to Bucksport’s economic development director David Milan. As of early November, heating oil cost between $3.50 and $3.70 per gallon, according to Maineoil.com. Contrast that with the natural gas equivalent to a gallon, which costs about $1.27, according to Bangor Gas’s website.
Though Bucksport agreed to let Verso Paper Co. lay natural gas pipelines as early as 1999 under the condition that the town would get access to the gas the following year, there was not significant interest amongst business owners and residents at first. It was not until 2009 that Bucksport began to make formal requests of Bangor Gas to extend the pipeline, according to Milan.
“It’s just taken this long to work through the process and figure each other out,” he said of Bangor Gas Co. and the town of Bucksport.
Negotiations did not go smoothly and went on for years.
In late 2012, Bucksport filed a complaint about Bangor Gas Co. with the Public Utilities Commission, claiming that the gas company was demanding too much of the town in upfront costs for construction of the new utility. The complaint also stated that Bangor Gas kept changing the proposed route of the pipeline, denying interested residents and business owners access to the gas.
Finally, a deal was reached last spring and the complaint was dropped. Now, a pressure reduction station across the street from the Verso mill makes the gas suitable for nonindustrial use. The pipeline runs from that station down Main Street, up Elm Street then on through the heart of Bucksport, past Bucksport High School and ending at Bucksport Middle School.
RSU 25 superintendent Jim Boothby expects the switch to save the school district at least $100,000 per year.
“We’ve already planned on the savings in our budget,” said Boothby. “So the sooner we can make the switch the sooner we can realize those savings.”
According to Milan, money the town saved when Regional School Unit 25 was formed is going toward construction of the new utility. That amount will reach $300,000 when this phase of the project is complete.
Bucksport’s public safety building, which houses the police and fire departments, also will hook up to the natural gas pipeline.
About 65 Bucksport residents have applied to hook up to the natural gas pipeline so far, according to Barrowman. The gas company is no longer accepting applications for this year, but they will accept applications for conversion in the spring.
Residents who apply must work with contractors to outfit their homes to be able to burn natural gas. Contractor Nick Osborne of Osborne Plumbing and Heating said he has been to many Bucksport homes over the last couple years to do assessments on what converting would take and how much it would cost. He has not yet converted anyone, however.
“Not everybody likes to commit until the gas is there,” he said.
But town officials are optimistic.
“It’s really fantastic to be able to bring low cost energy to the schools now and eventually many residents in Bucksport,” Town Manager Michael Brennan said.
“As someone who’s from the midwest who grew up with natural gas, it was just natural to have natural gas,” he said with a laugh.
Milan also is glad to have reached this phase.
“As a friend said to me, it’s like making a sausage,” he recalled. “It’s messy when you’re doing it but at the end it tastes good. This time we’ll be able to cook our sausage on natural gas.”