GARDINER — High heating oil costs have school district officials wanting to switch to a cheaper heating alternative, such as natural gas.

Even as they press two competing gas companies for specifics, however, it’s still uncertain when or if natural gas will reach the city.

“We’re ready to make a change. We just don’t know what that change will be,” Regional School Unit 11 Superintendent Patricia Hopkins said between presentations last week by competing natural gas companies to the City Council.

The district has narrowed its alternative energy choices to natural gas or wood pellets, both of which would provide significant cost savings over the long run to the district and the taxpayers.

Best-case estimates from the two companies, Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas of Maine, have the resource reaching Gardiner no sooner than 2014; but the rest of the community probably would have to wait even longer if the districts passes on natural gas.

District representatives say they know the longer they wait to switch, the more potential savings on heating costs they lose.

“We’re getting tight, squeezing every ounce of blood out of the resources we have, and this is one opportunity to save some real money for taxpayers,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said an energy consultant advised them two years ago that natural gas would be the best option at the time, if available, and that the district should look to other sources if it’s still not available in the next couple years.

Neither of the two natural gas companies knocking at the city’s door have a set timeline of when natural gas could be available to Gardiner customers.

David Allen, a consultant for Maine Natural Gas, told the councilors and school representatives that the best-case scenario would put natural gas in Gardiner in 2014. Summit’s presenter, Michael Duguay, said it wouldn’t be any earlier than fall 2014 for his company.

“If they would have told us they’re coming in a year with natural gas, it would be a lot easier,” said Jon Stonier, the school district’s director of operations.

One reason for the timeline’s uncertainty is Summit’s ongoing approval process with the state Public Utilities Commission, said Dan Hucko, spokesman for Maine Natural Gas. Summit has conditional approval and is still waiting for official approval to begin services customers in Maine.

Maine Natural Gas already has the PUC’s approval to operate in Maine and has secured a contract from MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta to provide natural gas by next November.

Hucko said signing anchor companies suchy as the hospital or a school district allows Maine Natural Gas to provide natural gas to the rest of the surrounding communities. He said some potential customers are waiting to see what happens to Summit before choosing a company.

He said Maine Natural Gas wants to provide services to the city, but he realizes that the district could opt for an alternative besides natural gas.

“That takes them off the list of potential customers. That’s really going to delay natural gas getting into Gardiner,” he said.

Eric Jermyn, the school board’s vice president, said the board understands that the district’s decision could affect the likelihood of the natural gas coming to the rest of the city.

“We don’t want to make a decision in a vacuum,” he said. “We want to be a good community partner, but in the end we want to do what’s best for the children, the taxpayers.”

Hopkins said she doesn’t know what the board would recommend, partly because of the difficulty in balancing this issue.

The school district spends about $350,000 each school year on slightly more than 105,000 gallons of oil, according to Hopkins. About three-quarters of that usage comes from the middle school and the high school, so those are its top priorities for savings, she said.

The district, which consists of Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner, also has five elementary schools.

A hired energy consultant found that a wood-pellet boiler system could cut the current $148,000-a-year heating costs for the high school in half, down to $70,000, Hopkins said, and natural gas could bring the yearly heating cost down to $55,000.

“My only concern (with natural gas) is timing,” Hopkins said. I’m still not clear or confident that natural gas will be in Gardiner within the next couple years. And if it’s not, I’m concerned about what’s our best solution for the Gardiner school system.”

Another consideration in switching to either fuel source is the conversion cost associated with the change. The consultant estimated that switching to a wood-pellet boiler system could cost $450,000 to $550,000, compared to $340,000 to $440,00 for a natural gas system, Hopkins said.

The estimated time for each prospective investment to pay for itself in cost savings is around five to seven years, with natural gas having only a slight edge over wood pellets.

Stonier, who is in charge of the busing and maintenance for the district, said the conversion cost for the wood-pellet option would be cheaper if they added a wood-pellet boiler to their current No. 2 oil system, instead of replacing it. The wood-pellet boiler would handle around 90 percent of the work, still providing significant energy savings, he said.

City Hall and the public works garage have switched to wood-pellet boiler systems in the last two years, but the city is evaluating alternative heating options for the Gardiner Public Library and the waste water treatment plant, which still use oil, City Manager Scott Morelli said.

He said the results of those evaluations probably would be ready in January. Morelli said the city would be able to wait to see whether natural gas will be available before making a decision.

Morelli said the city doesn’t care which company provides natural gas to Gardiner, as long as someone is providing it to both residential and commercial customers, especially Libby Hill Business Park.

“That makes us a lot more attractive than another business park that can’t offer that type of energy savings,” he said. “We view it as an economic development tool, for sure — certainly in our business park, but also in our downtown and other business areas.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]