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Saturday March 9, 2013 Scott Kelly attended an awards banquet in Las Vegas put on by Equipment World Magazine and Caterpillar Equipment where he found out that ETTI won 2013 Contractor of the Year.
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BRUNSWICK – Homeowners in the Meadowbrook subdivision here have Botany Place envy. No, they don’t like the Botany Place condominium community any better than their woodsy neighborhood of custom homes, across the road on outer Maine Street.
What they covet is the gas.
Contractors for Maine Natural Gas currently are installing underground gas lines to the Botany Place condos. With gas heat costing much less than fuel oil these days, the condo dwellers can save hundreds of dollars each winter.
Recently, a group of Meadowbrook residents asked the gas company to hook them up, too. Several say they’re ready to write checks for up to $3,000 to pay for boiler conversions, but their burning desire for gas will need to cool for a while.
“It may be two years before we start doing work in there,” said Darrel Quimby, the company’s vice president. “That’s how the process works.”
Maine Natural Gas is one of three regulated, investor-owned gas utilities in the state. For these private companies, residential expansion is a measured, calculated undertaking. Unless homes are near a distribution line, getting service requires a critical mass of cash-ready customers living within certain distances of a gas main to cover the costs of construction.
Botany Place met those conditions. But before any digging starts in Meadowbrook, the gas company needs to calculate a rate of return based on possible pipe routes, the number of committed customers, their estimated fuel consumption and other variables. For instance: The cost of running a mile of distribution line ranges from $150,000 to $300,000.
The challenge of getting gas to Meadowbrook is instructive for policy makers, who have been talking a lot lately about reducing Maine’s heating oil use by substituting natural gas.
Gov. Paul LePage set up a task force to seek solutions, and he recently called for the state to cut heating oil dependence in half by 2014, down to 40 percent. One of the key strategies is to encourage private enterprises to expand natural gas in built-up areas.
That idea has traction for big “anchor” customers, such as paper mills. But as residents of Meadowbrook are discovering, it’s easier said than done on the home front.
Nationally, natural gas heats more than half of all homes, a penetration that took many decades to achieve. But Maine didn’t gain a plentiful gas supply until two new interstate pipelines from Canada were built in the late 1990s. It takes time and money to build a distribution network, and today, only 5 percent of Maine homes are heated with natural gas.
Maine Natural Gas is a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola USA, the parent company of Central Maine Power Co. It serves Windham, Gorham and the Brunswick region. It started 13 years ago, but so far has only 2,800 customers.
The current price gap between oil and gas has Maine Natural Gas growing faster than ever.
Sometimes, the decision to expand is a no-brainer. Botany Place is an example.
The units are clustered and adjacent to a gas distribution line from Baribeau and MacMillan drives. A resident who expressed interest in gas last summer quickly enlisted more than two dozen neighbors willing and able to have their oil equipment converted. Maine Natural Gas offers a rebate of up to $400 to help offset the cost.
“We got 25 homes, and that made it worthwhile,” Quimby said.
Modern engineering also helps. A crew from Enterprise Trenchless Technologies has been using directional drilling equipment to snake 2-inch diameter polyethylene pipe, 3 feet deep, under lawns and driveways.
The job looks more like a landscaping project than an energy venture. Workers have dragged 4,000 feet of pipe under the condo complex, and in many places, the only evidence is spray paint and location marker flags.
“We started last Tuesday, and a lot of people didn’t even know we were in their backyards,” said Joe Jones, a foreman on the job.
At Botany Place, many homeowners will have gas this winter. Ted Bernard wishes he had the same opportunity.
Bernard drives by Botany Place, to and from downtown Brunswick. He turns off after Parkview Medical Center, which is served by gas.
Bernard’s four-year-old home is in the final phase of Meadowbrook, a collection of roughly 300 colonial and cape-style homes set among pines and hardwoods. Stacks of cordwood in many yards suggest residents are seeking heating alternatives; most homes heat with oil and many have older, less-efficient units.
That’s not the case in Bernard’s cellar. He has the Mercedes-Benz of oil boilers — a high-performance German unit with an outdoor temperature sensor and six zones connected to setback thermostats. Bernard isn’t satisfied, though. Converting the burner could cost a few thousand dollars, he concedes, but it would pay back in lower fuel bills within three years.
“If there’s ever a worldwide economic recovery, I wouldn’t be surprised to see $5-a-gallon heating oil,” he said.
Bernard’s reasoning, though, goes beyond money. He and a few neighbors gathered recently in his living room to chat about natural gas.
Gas is a domestic energy source that creates less air pollution, said Paul Ciejka. He lives down the road and burns 700 gallons of oil a year.
Kevin Hart lives across the street from Bernard. He moved here five years ago from New York state, where he heated with gas.
“There’s something odd about a truck coming to fill your tank,” he said.
Sandy and Mike Feil also heated with gas in their former home. Since moving to Meadowbrook, they’ve been unsettled by the wild price swings of heating oil.
Sandy Feil is president of the section’s homeowner association. At a recent meeting, 20 participants were asked about natural gas. Roughly 15 said they wanted to switch. With 300 homes in the entire subdivision, Feil figures there are plenty of potential customers in Meadowbrook — if they could only hook up.
Maine’s other gas distribution utilities are experiencing similar demand.
Bangor Gas signed up 1,000 residents in the area this year and is having a hard time connecting them all before winter. Some homes may have to wait until spring, the company said earlier this month.
Unitil has 70,800 customers in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, with Maine driving overall growth. The utility bought the former Northern Utilities system in 2008, and now has 27,000 customers in Lewiston-Auburn, Greater Portland and southern Maine. It wants to expand the customer base by 1.5 percent annually.
Some homeowners want faster growth. A letter writer to The Portland Press Herald recently complained that he tried to get Unitil interested in his 25-home, oil-heated development in South Portland, with no luck.
Alec O’Meara, a Unitil spokesman, said people may not realize that expansion costs can’t be shifted to existing homeowners.
“The construction costs associated with expanding the natural gas system can be significant,” he said. “By Maine regulation, these costs must be covered over time by the customers who benefit from the expanded service.”
In Meadowbrook, Bernard, Hart and the Feils say they’d write a check tomorrow. The thought of waiting another two years is frustrating, especially to Mike Feil, who’s 64.
“I hope I get it sometime,” he joked. “I’m not going to be here forever.”
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: