PORTLAND, Maine — Natural gas company Unitil expects to break its record for most new southern Maine customers for the second straight year when the final figures are tallied for 2013.
The news comes on the heels of Unitil’s announcement last week that the company has completed work replacing gas lines in Portland’s Old Port and the entirety of Westbrook, marking a milestone in the firm’s massive 14-year, $60 million Greater Portland upgrade project.
An unrelated $42 million project by Summit Natural Gas will establish gas lines through three towns just north of Portland — Cumberland, Yarmouth and Falmouth — starting next year.
Unitil’s service area ends on the coast at Portland.
Unlike its immediate northern neighbors, most of whom will be able to connect to gas lines for the first time next year, Portland’s natural gas infrastructure in some places dates back more than a century. Unitil’s System Upgrade for Reliable Energy project, or SURE, seeks to replace miles of cast-iron and bare steel piping with high-density plastic. The changes will also allow Unitil to increase the network from low-pressure distribution to high-pressure.
“What that’s doing is making the infrastructure nice and strong so we can support more customers coming on board in the area,” Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara said Thursday.
The added capacity seems to be necessary.
Unitil attracted nearly 1,000 new Maine customers in 2012 — at that point, its best year. Current year totals won’t be available until they’re finally tabulated in 2014, O’Meara said. The company has nearly 29,000 Maine customers in total and more than 73,000 across its coverage areas in this state, New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined.
“This year, it’s very possible we could double that [previous best of 1,000 new Maine customers],” O’Meara said. “We have seen dramatic uptick in the customers who have been interested in natural gas.”
The SURE project launched in 2011, and 11 years remain on the schedule. Three years in, O’Meara said the company is 28 percent complete, finishing in the Old Port despite agreeing with city officials to avoid working during the summer months — the prime season for tourism and construction.
Natural gas nationwide is seeing a boom in popularity as an increase in domestic reserves of the fuel source has boosted abundance and driven down prices. At approximately $1.80 per cubic foot, natural gas is considerably cheaper than the much more prevalent oil to heat a home.
Heating oil is selling at about $3.20 per gallon in the Portland area.
Alex Lear of The Forecaster contributed to this story.