PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook Medical Center became the first health care organization in the state and possibly the nation to break ground on a project that will result in a hospital being heated with compressed natural gas.

Compressed natural gas is a form of natural gas that is stored under high pressure. It is one of the cleanest and safest fuels available.

The hospital broke ground on the project during a brief ceremony on Thursday.

Once the project is completed in April 2013, TAMC leaders said that the health care organization will save an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 in annual heating costs at its largest facility – A.R. Gould Memorial Hospital on Academy Street in Presque Isle.

Sylvia Getman, president and CEO of the hospital, said on Friday that she sees the conversion effort as something that will benefit the hospital and the environment and possibly have far-reaching effects across the state.

According to Getman, the hospital organized a committee last year to brainstorm ideas that would help them save money on operational costs. Officials at TAMC immediately zeroed in on annual spending to heat the buildings on campus.

James McKenney, TAMC vice president for diagnostic and support services, said that officials briefly explored heating with biomass, but soon decided that it did not make good financial sense.

“We figured that it would cost us about $5 million for a conversion to biomass,” he said on Friday. “And we would not see a return on that investment for about five years. The conversion to CNG will cost about $300,000 and we’ll see a return on our investment in less than a year.”

The first phase of the project involves the laying of the pipeline that will connect the docking station to the boiler plant. Earth-moving equipment is now on site at the far south end of the hospital property in an area that until recently was used as a parking lot. Soderberg Construction, a Caribou contractor, is preparing the site for a decompression station where, once up and running, tube trailers filled with CNG will be connected.

The decompression station will lower the pressure and transfer the gas into an underground pipeline, which will run along the eastern boundary of the hospital property and cross a parking lot to connect with and feed the existing boiler plant. The existing burners on TAMC’s boilers can burn CNG with only minor modification, and will also be able to burn No. 2 heating oil as a backup fuel.

“The savings realized from switching to CNG from No. 2 fuel oil will help TAMC prepare for a new model of health care while ensuring that resources are available to invest in technology and services to benefit the people of Aroostook County,” Getman said. “This not only makes sound economic sense and helps us advance our mission, but helps us greatly reduce our carbon footprint and makes our organization a much better steward of the environment.”

McKenney said that the low start-up costs for the CNG conversion and the stable natural gas market made it the most logical choice. He said that this conversion could lead the hospital to choose forms of alternative energy to heat its other facilities throughout central Aroostook County.

He also said that TAMC intends to expand how it uses CNG in the future to include powering the hospital’s air conditioning, clothes dryers and cooking ovens. Currently, the hospital uses fuel oil to both heat and cool the facility.

Tim Doak, TAMC facility engineer, serves on the alternative energy committee composed of staff and members of the TAMC Board of Trustees. Doak designed the site and led the effort to obtain the necessary environmental permitting to allow construction of the site to begin.

“Our group worked collaboratively with the Maine Fuel Board, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the State Fire Marshal’s office to establish the guidelines and appropriate codes and safety measures for this groundbreaking project,” he explained. “The state, in particular the State Fire Marshal’s office, has been very supportive and has responded with remarkable speed to develop guidelines and an approval process to allow this project to proceed.”

That effort to seek state approval for such projects was supported by the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, who formed a working group to champion this cause and tackle the barriers and rules implementation with the state. The group worked with the governor’s energy office, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Fuels Board and Fire Marshall to finalize the natural gas operating parameters and eliminate the permitting obstacles.

Bob Dorsey, president and CEO of APP, said that he considered it an “incredible accomplishment” that TAMC had worked with various team members and secured the go-ahead for natural gas use in the County in just three months.

Both McKenney and Getman said that other health care facilities and organizations across the state have contacted them to discuss the project. They said that they are pleased that other facilities are watching their CNG conversion project and are optimistic about the possibility of other such projects across the state.

The hospital has been working for several months with partners Mechanical Services, Inc., which has four locations in Maine, including Presque Isle, and New England-based Xpress Natural Gas, or XNG, to develop specific details for the conversion. Mechanical Services introduced the concept of CNG to TAMC, and will provide the expertise for the boiler house piping and burner conversion.

XNG will be the first company in Maine to haul CNG for heating use, and will provide the trailers, decompression station, CNG, and do all of the hauling. The hospital’s supply of CNG will come from the northeastern United States. XNG trucks with tube trailers will transport the fuel from a new CNG compression station being built in Baileyville in Washington County.

When a truck arrives, it will connect to the decompression station and the tube trailer will remain on site until the tank is empty. At that point, another trailer will be trucked to the site to take its place. Several trailers of fuel will be delivered each month.

The cylindrical trailers used to transport CNG must meet very stringent safety standards. They are designed to survive a rollover at highway speeds without rupturing. The trucks hauling CNG to TAMC will use the Centerline and Easton roads to access the hospital, thus avoiding the heavy traffic and sharp turn onto Academy Street in downtown Presque Isle.

On Friday, Getman said that she was thrilled that TAMC had found a way to lower costs without cutting positions or services, and at the same time being “good environmental stewards.”

“Not only are we making this conversion, we are also paving the way to potentially make conversions to alternative energy use at our other facilities,” she noted. “And I think that the more people learn about how we did this, the more interested they will be in possibly completing their own conversion project. It’s good for us, the environment, and I think we may see others follow in our footsteps. We are really pleased with our decision.”