Monday, March 10, 2014
CUMBERLAND — Summit Natural Gas of Maine is preparing to break ground in the coming months on a massive project to connect thousands of homes and businesses in Cumberland, Yarmouth and Falmouth to natural gas.
Susan Smith with her son Ethan, 7, at their farmhouse in Cumberland Center. The Smiths, who recently moved from Illinois, were among the first to sign up for natural gas when it becomes available in Cumberland Center.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Service is scheduled to begin in some parts of Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth later this year along major roads. By the end of 2017, Summit Natural Gas says it will extend pipeline to more than 80 percent of the towns.
According to information provided by Cumberland, a homeowner who burns 850 gallons of oil in a year could save $1,130 each year by burning natural gas instead.
The cost of switching a home or business to burn natural gas can be $2,500 to $7,000 or more, depending on the building’s existing equipment and whether conversion would require a new burner for an existing boiler, a new boiler or an entirely new heating system. A private heating contractor can provide an estimate of the cost.
REBATES: Summit plans to introduce a $1,500 rebate for people who must replace a boiler, and $375 to replace a burner. Low-interest loans are available through Efficiency Maine.
And customers are quickly getting in line for service.
Those signing up to convert to gas include the local school district and homeowners such as Susan Smith, who expects to save $1,000 per winter on heating her family’s 1840s farmhouse. “We jumped on it,” Smith said.
The company is expected to receive final approval for the project from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in the coming weeks. Sales teams have already hit the streets and are working the phones to sign up households and businesses along key routes in the three towns. A wider campaign, including television, radio, print and direct mail marketing, will be rolled out in March in support of the $72.5 million construction project.
So far, more than 250 households and 25 businesses have signed up. By the end of 2014, Summit projects it will capture 1,400 home customers and about 350 businesses in the area.
“This part of the state is encircled with natural gas,” said Mike Duguay, director of business development for Summit and former planning director for the city of Augusta. “(Cumberland, Yarmouth and Falmouth) have been the hole in the doughnut, so to speak. These people have been waiting for it for a long time, understanding the benefits of what their friends have experienced.”
If all goes according to plan, over the next five years Summit could become the second-largest supplier of natural gas in the state, poised to reach a total of more than 22,000 customers – with roughly 7,600 in the Portland suburbs and 15,000 in the Kennebec Valley, where a $350 million expansion project already underway stretches from Pittston to Madison.
If Summit meets all of its goals, it will be second in reach only to Unitil, which serves 28,750 natural gas customers between the southerly Maine-New Hampshire border and the Lewiston-Auburn area.
Natural gas has increasingly appealed to property-owners grappling with spikes in the cost of fuel oil and propane, especially after this heating season’s particularly harsh conditions.
Summit plans to have gas flowing to the first institutional and business customers in the suburban towns by September, including the three schools in Cumberland, with residential customers scheduled to come on line by December, according to the company. Municipalities have begun mailing information sheets to residents with transmission maps showing the annual plans to build out the system.
In the summer, the towns are planning to hold energy fairs, at which residents can hear Summit pitch its product first-hand and learn about subsidies the utility is offering for conversion costs. Shovels will hit dirt as early as April, with the bulk of construction set to begin in May and continue until the frost arrives.
Duguay said the company plans to introduce a $1,500 rebate for people who must replace a boiler, and $375 to replace a burner. Overall, depending on what heating systems are currently in use, residents can expect to pay between $2,000 and $7,000 – or in some cases more – to convert their systems, said Bill Shane, Cumberland’s town manager and a close follower of the project.
Summit was chosen in a competitive bidding process by the three suburban towns. Municipal officials are working closely with the utility, and have largely embraced the aggressive project, which will require crews to lay 245 miles of pipe and distribution lines by 2017. Construction will start first along three main corridors that lead from the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline to the west, to the three population centers. Construction will be heaviest along Blanchard and Tuttle roads, and routes 1 and 88.
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