SEARSPORT, Maine — Though the conversion of home and commercial heating systems to natural gas has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, propane use in Maine also is up sharply.
Use of liquid propane, or LP gas, has more than doubled, said Ken Fletcher, director of the Governor’s Energy Office. In 2004, Maine used 52 million gallons of the fuel. Consumption grew to 129 million gallons in 2009.
“I would expect it’s much higher today,” Fletcher said. He estimated that residential use of the fuel has doubled while commercial conversions have tripled. Often, LP represents an ancillary fuel to oil or wood.
Between 10 percent and 15 percent of Maine homes and commercial buildings use propane, Fletcher estimated. Six percent of buildings are heated with natural gas, compared to 50 percent nationally.
The often-quoted figure of 80 percent of Maine homes relying on oil to heat has dropped, with Maine consuming less than 200 million gallons in 2010, down from 415 million gallons in 2004, he said.
Factors such as milder winters, as well as homeowners who add a pellet stove to their heating options, contribute to the lower oil use, he said.
Some LP heating plant conversions are being made in anticipation of natural gas being available, Fletcher said, since the switch from one fuel to the other is easy.
Currently, natural gas is available in Bangor, Portland, Lewiston and Auburn for residential use. The LePage administration is working to extend gas lines up the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers, and into places such as Rockland, Farmington and Bethel, Fletcher said.
A planned 23-million-gallon storage tank for liquid propane, which stills needs approval from the Searsport Planning Board, could play a role in Maine’s propane future, greatly increasing the state’s storage capacity. Yet at the same time, importation of propane by ship does not seem economically viable.
The common source of propane had been as a byproduct of oil refining, Fletcher said. As such, it could be transported by ship from newly developed oil fields in places such as North Africa. But more recently, propane is being taken from what’s known as “wet” natural gas, also known as shale gas. Much of this propane is found in North America.
As a result, price “is no longer tied to oil,” he said.
But since propane in modern boilers and furnaces has an efficiency combustion rate of nearly 90 percent compared to 75 percent for older-style oil burners, propane can produce heat much more inexpensively, Fletcher explained.
Oil must be atomized into a fine spray before it can burn, while propane burns in its gas state.
Jamie Pye, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association — not coincidentally, the former Maine Oil Dealers Association — agreed that propane use is up.
“It’s very popular. It’s growing,” he said.
Currently, propane comes to Maine by truck, ship and rail. The fuel is handled at rail terminals in Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston and other places in Maine. The largest rail terminal for fuel is in Rochester, N.H., Pye said.
Railroads nationally have doubled the number of cars they own in recent years that can carry propane, a sign of the future, he believes.
“They’re calling them ‘rolling pipelines,’” Pye said.
“It would be nice to have that tank in Searsport,” Pye said, because the 23-million-gallon storage capacity would provide “a tremendous buffer of support for the entire system.” But given the higher cost of the oil-derived propane coming from refineries in Europe, transporting the fuel by ship is not cost-effective.
Of course, Pye noted, the fossil fuel market is volatile, so predicting more than a few years ahead is difficult.