A third major energy company has made a specific proposal to the Maine Public Utilities Commission to expand natural gas pipeline capacity and ask the state’s electric customers to help pay for it.

Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp. filed a plan Monday in which the state could contract to secure specific supplies of lower-cost natural gas on two proposed projects.

Spectra’s filing follows a similar action two weeks ago by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, owners of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. An earlier proposal was submitted by the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System.

The PUC is in the midst of deciding whether Maine ratepayers should spend up to $75 million a year to secure up to 200 million cubic feet of natural gas. This added capacity would help relieve bottlenecks in New England’s undersized pipeline system in the winter, when demand is high for heat and electricity generation. The agency must determine whether that investment would expand the supply to levels that would lower wholesale natural gas prices and, in turn, electricity costs.

A Maine study found that if natural gas prices in New England were closer to what other parts of the Northeast are paying, electric customers could save $1.5 billion a year, with $120 million of that savings in Maine. But the findings are controversial, and environmental groups say the region would be better off diversifying its energy supply with renewables, rather than becoming more dependent on natural gas.

The PUC staff is set to make its recommendations to the three commissioners on Wednesday, to help inform a vote expected later this fall.

That vote is part of a two-step process. The first step is to decide if Maine should enter into a so-called Energy Cost Reduction Contract, with funding from ratepayers, at all. If the answer is yes, the PUC will have to select a specific proposal. That’s why companies are jockeying for position now, making the case for why they have a better solution to a problem that’s costing Mainers hundreds of millions of dollars each winter.

The PUC process has taken on regional interest, after a larger agreement by the six New England governors to pursue a sweeping gas expansion plan fell apart over the summer when Massachusetts pulled out of the deal.

“In short, if the commission decides to proceed with an (energy contract), our hope is to expedite the process by which the commission would be able to move forward,” said Greg Crisp, Spectra’s general manager for business development.

Spectra has two expansion projects it’s promoting: Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. The first could be in service by 2017, the second a year later, pending regulatory approvals. A third project, called the Algonquin Incremental Market, is awaiting federal approval and is on track to be in service during 2016, Crisp said.

The advantage of these projects, Crisp said, is that they are expansions of existing pipelines that will have spurs to 60 percent of the gas-fired power plants in the region. That will get gas where it’s needed most on the coldest days, he said.

Kinder Morgan, one of Spectra’s competitors, has reached agreements with local natural gas distribution companies in southern New England to transport the equivalent of 500 million cubic feet per day on an expansion of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline called the Northeast Energy Direct Project.

New England burns an average of 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas a day in the winter. Adding 500 million cubic feet, an 11 percent increase, would be the equivalent of 3.5 million gallons of heating oil a day.

The Portland Natural Gas Transmission System proposal could move gas from the Northeast and from western Canada to boost supply, the company says. The project is called C2C.

These expressions of interest are a positive thing, according to Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate.

“This is a great development because it will allow a comparison between competing proposals,” he said.

“With this filing, all three of the entities that have discussed building additional pipeline capacity into the region now have (contract) proposals before the commission.”

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