Chip Gray said he wanted to take a shovel and dig. Gray, whose family owns the Harraseeket Inn, was aware that the new natural gas line buried along Main Street in downtown Freeport now stops at the L.L. Bean retail store — within sight of the inn’s entrance.

Gray burns 50,000 gallons of fuel oil per year at the 94-room inn. At today’s energy prices, he figures natural gas could cut his heat and hot water bills by 30 percent.

“Natural gas is a big bonus,” he said. “We’ve been missing out on that.”

After months of planning and construction, Maine Natural Gas began pumping fuel underground to Freeport on Friday, in the company’s first expansion into a new community in nearly a decade. Several businesses, town-owned properties including the high school, and a few homes already have hooked up.

Next year, gas will reach the Harraseeket Inn and the Hilton Garden Inn at the northern end of the village, and extend south along Route 1 to the business park on Stonewood Drive. The pipeline could approach the Yarmouth town line in 2012.

State officials who want Maine to cut its heavy dependence on imported oil hold up natural gas as a cleaner, more secure energy source. Gas also is much less expensive today than most heating fuels, including oil, a benefit cited during the gubernatorial campaign by Gov.-elect Paul LePage.

But underground gas lines are costly to install, and that remains an obstacle to wider expansion in Maine. Just as a major shopping center needs an anchor store, gas companies won’t run lines without big users to help amortize the investment.

In Freeport, it’s L.L. Bean. The company burns 200,000 gallons of oil and 300,000 gallons of propane annually at its giant facilities around town. With gas prices low, the time to convert seemed right. Bean wanted natural gas not only to save money, but to reduce air emissions associated with climate change, said Carolyn Beem, a spokeswoman for the company.

“We’ve been talking about it for five years,” she said.

Maine Natural Gas is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, the parent company of Central Maine Power Co. It has 2,330 customers, in Windham, Gorham, Topsham, Bowdoin and Brunswick. Its last major expansion came in 2001, to serve the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

To get to Freeport, the company installed an 8-mile spur from Pownal and the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, which connects the U.S. gas network with the Sable Island gas fields off Nova Scotia and the Canaport LNG terminal in New Brunswick.

It built a pressure regulator station in Pownal and buried 8-inch-diameter, high-density plastic pipe along roads leading to Route 1. The average cost was $370,000 a mile, said Darrel Quimby, vice president of Maine Natural Gas.

Construction has ended with the coming of winter. It will resume in the spring. Several businesses have hooked up and many more are waiting, Quimby said. Some homeowners who live directly along the route also are connecting. The company brings the line to the buildings at no cost; owners pay to convert their heating equipment.

The distribution network will branch out over time, but it’s not likely to cross into Yarmouth unless a major customer emerges.

The economic downturn and new domestic supplies have made gas a relative bargain today, according to federal energy department calculations. When heat output and typical burner efficiencies are considered, gas costs about half as much as home heating oil priced at $2.74 a gallon, the average price in southern Maine this week.

With natural gas priced now at about $1 a therm for home use, the fuel can be less expensive than firewood at $200 a cord, depending on burn efficiencies.

Commercial customers pay even less for gas, and its availability in Freeport is exciting to economic development officials.

Sande Updegraph sent e-mails last spring to businesses around the Desert Road-Route 1 corridor, telling them gas was coming. Updegraph, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., has since heard that businesses including Buck’s Naked BBQ, Gritty McDuff’s and the Hampton Inn are connected, with others in the queue for next year.

Meanwhile, the town is planning a small business park along Desert Road, and gas is a selling point to one company that may locate there. Gas expansion south on Route 1 over the next two years would make it easier for the town to market that stretch for business growth, she said.

Gas in Freeport is encouraging to John Kerry, the state’s energy director. It may give some businesses an option of buying equipment to generate heat and electricity onsite.

But Kerry is frustrated by how hard it is to expand natural gas in Maine. His office has been talking with Maine Natural Gas about building a spur from the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline in Windsor to the Togus VA Medical Center and on to the state office complexes in Augusta. So far, it has proven too costly.

“It’s very challenging,” Kerry said. “The bottom line is return on investment.”

As gas arrives in Freeport, oil dealers are watching a threat to their business.

Oil and kerosene warm roughly 80 percent of the homes in Maine. As wholesale prices rise and fall, oil continues to represent a good value over time, said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

“Gas is a strong competitor,” he said. “It’s a competition we’re fighting with every day.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com