WINSLOW — Town councilors grilled representatives from Summit Natural Gas for nearly an hour Wednesday evening, demanding to know the reasons for the delay of a planned natural gas expansion this year and a new time line for when Winslow residents could expect the company to supply gas to the town.

The company’s answer to the first question was that the cost to connect Winslow across the Kennebec River was unexpectedly high, and demand from residents was lackluster.

Summit representatives had difficulty directly answering the council’s second question, stating that it was looking at alternatives to crossing the river but probably wouldn’t have a good idea of projects planned for 2017 until it received approval from its financial backers later this autumn.

The company’s responses were met with frustration and concern on the part of councilors, who questioned whether the company intended to expand into Winslow at all and stated that the delay further tarnished the company’s image in the community.

“There’s a credibility issue here, and I’m upset by it,” said At-large Councilor Ken Fletcher, near the conclusion of the meeting with company representatives.

Summit previously stated that it planned a build-out into Winslow’s residential core in 2015, attaching to main municipal and school buildings and moving into densely packed neighborhoods. The company intended to connect to the town across the Kennebec using the main Winslow-Waterville bridge.

But in February, company officials called Town Manager Mike Heavener to say the plans were off for the year.

On Wednesday, Summit’s business development manager, Mike Duguay, explained that the cost to string pipe across the bridge came in far higher than the company expected. At the same time, some canvassing of neighborhoods indicated that demand in town was not as strong as initially believed, Duguay said.

The company then was confronted with the fact that the extremely expensive “backbone” infrastructure it would need to put into Winslow was not being matched by what it stood to gain in Winslow.

“We had a technical challenge that created a financial hurdle,” Duguay told councilors. The cost to string pipe across the bridge came to around $1 million, twice what the company originally predicted, said Bruce Madore, Summit’s director of engineering.

Duguay and Madore were joined by project manager Bryan Foster and Stacey Fitts, Summit’s director of government and regulatory affairs, at the council meeting.

To complicate the situation, Winslow is the only destination for the pipeline, which is not planned to extend to Benton or towns beyond, Duguay said. That puts it in a difficult situation, because it means that Summit doesn’t have to build out to reach other markets, making consumer demand in the town even more critical.

Residential demand is also not balanced with industrial customers in town, making the cost of initial build-out even more prohibitive, Duguay said.

Councilors weren’t swayed by the company’s justifications.

Fletcher, who was the director of Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, said that a lack of commercial customers shouldn’t be a challenge for Summit, which was selected for the project because of its focus on residential services.

He also questioned the company’s commitment under the rate package approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which envisioned a five-year build-out, including Winslow.

Fitts, the company’s government affairs representative, said that although the company had envisioned a five-year build, the approved rate plan was for 10 years, giving the company some flexibility.

Summit is probably a year behind at this point, Fitts estimated.

Councilor Ray Caron said that delaying the expansion to Winslow could put it at a disadvantage with other towns that have gas when attracting new businesses. He also asked how the company could have been caught so off guard with the price of crossing the Kennebec when getting across the river was in the company’s plans from the beginning.

Duguay said that the company was considering alternatives, including installing a gas transistor on the main line on U.S. Route 201 and drilling north into Winslow, but noted that the current devices are even more costly than a bridge crossing.

At this point, the company has locked in its projects for 2015, he added. It won’t know which projects will be green-lit by its financial backers until October at the earliest, he told councilors.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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