ROCKLAND, Maine — FMC BioPolymer, the city’s largest taxpayer and one of the region’s largest employers, is seeking approval to install four 35-foot-tall, 18,000-gallon tanks to store liquid natural gas as it works to convert its fuel source.
The project, estimated at more than $5 million, would ensure the viability of the plant that employs 140 people, the plant manager said Thursday evening during a two-hour meeting held in downtown Rockland to inform community leaders and neighbors.
And the conversion from No. 6 heating oil to liquid natural gas could help spur the eventual extension of a natural gas pipeline to Knox County, according to state and local officials.
The announcement comes more than a year after a developer discussed the possibility of extending a natural gas pipeline to the Rockland area and the construction of a 25-megawatt natural gas generation plant to be built near the Dragon Products cement plant. That proposal, put forth by the company Self-Gen, also called for small generation plants to be built at sites where larger users from Warren to Rockport could use the electricity generated from those small natural gas plants.
That plan, however, did not materialize.
Natural gas is being touted as an alternative to heating oil because it is less expensive and produces fewer greenhouse gases.
The Maine Bureau of General Services last April had signed a letter of intent with Self-Gen to provide natural gas to the Maine State Prison in Warren.
Patrick Woodcock, the director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said Friday that after the state did its due diligence analysis of the proposal, it determined that the plan was not financially feasible.
But the state is studying all options for alternative fuels and he expects that this past winter will be the last one that the prison will use heating oil. He said among the options is the use of compressed natural gas.
The state prison uses 400,000 gallons of heating oil each year at a cost of about $1.3 million. Another $850,000 is spent on electricity.
Woodcock said that FMC’s decision to go to natural gas will make it more viable for a developer to eventually extend a natural gas pipeline to the midcoast. He said that having more large-scale customers of natural gas makes the extension more financially feasible.
The closest the pipeline comes to the Rockland area is Windsor, 35 miles west of Rockland.
The projected cost to extend a natural gas pipeline is $1 million per mile, although that could reach as much as $2 million per mile in areas of extensive ledge.
FMC is proposing a conversion of its heating system from No. 6 heating oil to liquid natural gas for economic reasons, but also for environmental reasons.
“After extensive research and a feasibility study that included current and available energy alternatives, it was concluded that natural gas would be the best energy fuel to both reduce emissions and meet our thermal energy needs,” the company manager stated in his presentation to the community.
About 40 people attended the meeting held at the Rockland Lighthouse Museum.
The plant processes seaweed into carrageenan, which is used in a variety of products such as toothpaste and ice cream.
Questions from residents concerned the potential risk to neighbors, but company officials said that the amount of planning, engineering and government regulation assures that the tanks will not be a threat to the community.
The new 35-foot storage tanks would be located on an existing parking lot on the grounds of the FMC plant on Crockett’s Point off Tillson Avenue. The tanks would be surrounded by a dike and a fence. The tanks also would be protected by cameras and other surveillance equipment, according to FMC officials.
The liquid natural gas would be delivered by specially designed semi-trailer trucks. An estimated two deliveries per day will be made to the plant. This is one truck more per week than is done now with the fuel oil, according to the company.
The project will need state and local approval. It will need to go before the Rockland Planning Board, in which a public hearing would likely be held.
The environmental benefits of liquid natural gas include dramatically reduced emissions. Rodney Mason, the maintenance manager at the FMC plant for the past 23 years, said the conversion will mean an end to the practice of every four hours blowing steam through the smokestacks to get rid of the buildup from burning heavy No. 6 heating oil.
The amount of sulfur emitted from the plant will be reduced to nearly zero, a reduction of 400 tons a year, he noted.
The company looked at many different alternatives, he said, including wind, solar and biomass. Company officials said liquid natural gas came out on top in terms of cost, operational efficiency, reliability and lower emissions. For example, Mason said the company considered a wood-fired plant, but it would have cost $10 million to replace the boilers and it would have required deliveries of 14 trucks of wood each day.
While the costs of oil and liquid natural gas bounce around, liquid natural gas costs between 30 percent and 50 percent less than oil, Mason said.
Plant manager Dennis Kearney said he is excited about the possibility of growth at FMC BioPolymer. The Rockland plant is the last remaining carrageenan manufacturer in the United States.
Rockland Fire Chief Charles Jordan Jr. said FMC and the department have worked closely together over the years on training and safety. He said he would not allow anything to be introduced into the community that would put it at risk.
Rockland City Councilor Larry Pritchett, who works as an environmental consultant, said that the conversion to liquid natural gas by FMC will reduce air emissions and not result in added traffic.
“I would be hard-pressed to find a downside,” Pritchett said.
He said that the city has been working aggressively for the past seven years to encourage the extension of a natural gas pipeline to Rockland and that it will be more likely with FMC’s conversion.
An extension of the pipeline would allow other businesses and homeowners to convert and reduce their costs, city officials noted.
At a December 2011 meeting in Rockland on the possibility of a natural gas pipeline, Ken Fletcher, then the director of the Maine Office of Energy Independence and Security, said while there was no single silver bullet to solve the problem of high energy costs in Maine, expanded use of liquid natural gas was one component that could lower businesses’ operating costs and make Maine companies more competitive in the global market.