WATERVILLE — School Superintendent Eric Haley remembers talking with other school officials two years ago about converting Waterville Junior High School’s heating system from oil to propane.

Then, all the excitement and discussion around natural gas began — and the prospect of natural gas coming to the city looked promising.

“We said, ‘Let’s put it on hold,'” Haley recalled of discussions about propane. “I had it on the School Board agenda to ask for permission to do it, and we pulled it.”

Now, school officials are going full bore in discussions about converting school buildings to natural gas.

Haley, who is superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92 which includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro, said he’d like to see natural gas in all the schools.

“You think about the kind of savings that can go on, and the availability of natural gas,” he said.

By using natural gas, schools could save 30 to 35 percent over what it is paying now for heating oil, according to Haley.

“That’s pretty fast payback,” he said. “We had estimates to convert oil burners in Winslow at $15,000 per school.”

Waterville Senior High School has a wood pellet burner and uses oil as a backup. Haley said other Waterville schools have two burners and he thinks it would be prudent to convert one in each to natural gas.

With oil, major events in the world can cause wide price fluctuations, but that has not been the case with natural gas, he said.

“With natural gas, there is certainly less maintenance,” Haley said. “It’s available and it remains relatively stable.”

Natural gas coming

Summit Natural Gas of Maine, of Augusta, is rapidly reaching Waterville homes and businesses.

The company is building a $350 million natural gas pipeline in the Kennebec Valley that will ultimately provide gas to some residents and city businesses this year.

“We’re under construction,” Summit Natural Gas president Michael Minkos said Thursday. “We have between 400 and 500 people working throughout the valley on the steel (transmission) pipe. We are constructing 68 miles, from Pittston to Madison.”

Summit plans, as part of its contractual agreements, to have Madison Paper Industries hooked up to natural gas by Nov. 1, Huhtamakiin both in Waterville and Fairfield by Dec. 1 and Sappi in Skowhegan next year.

Beyond that, the company will build distribution lines to allow Waterville businesses and residents to get natural gas. Where and when will that will occur depends on demand and the ability to deliver in those areas, according to Minkos.

Permits from communities to open roads are coming in later than Summit officials anticipated, so identifying exact locations is difficult at this point, according to Minkos.

“We will be providing (gas to) several this year — some residents and some commercial businesses in Waterville,” he said. “We will have the steel infrastructure complete this year in Waterville, Madison and Augusta. Next year and subsequent years we’ll have additional buildout to customers who express interest and we’ll put pipe in the ground. Salespeople will canvas businesses and residents in Waterville to determine where the interest is, and that’s where we’ll build our system.”

He said the best way for people to express interest in converting to natural gas is via Summit’s website, summitnaturalgasmaine.com.

“We already have certain customers within Waterville,” he said. “They are on our construction schedule for this year.”

Minkos noted that with the slower than anticipated permitting process in some communities, Summit’s website listings for pipeline locations in places such as Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, Oakland and Vassalboro may change.

Meanwhile, the city of Augusta last month chose Summit, a subsidiary of the Colorado-based Summit Utilities, to provide natural gas to city and school buildings.

The city initially had two bidders for the project: Summit and the Brunswick- based Maine Natural Gas. It is a subsidiary of Iberdrola USA Management Corp., owner of Central Maine Power Co. Last month, Maine Natural Gas withdrew its bid for that project.

Maine Natural Gas, however, is building a $54 million distribution pipeline that enters the city from Windsor and is scheduled to supply natural gas to MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new hospital on Old Belgrade Road. The hospital is scheduled to open in November. Maine Natural Gas also has an agreement to supply gas to University of Maine at Augusta.

Responding Friday to a request for an update on the pipeline project, Maine Natural Gas said in an email that the 21.4 mile “backbone pipeline” is ahead of schedule and 87 percent complete.

“Commercial and residential properties along the line from Eastern Avenue to the new MaineGeneral Medical Center have signed up with Maine Natural Gas and will have gas flowing to them this fall. The Capitol area will also have natural gas available this fall,” according to the email.

Construction continues on Leighton Road, Capitol Street by the Cross Building, Eastern Avenue and on Route 32 in Windsor near Maine Natural Gas’ metering and regulating station, according to the email. 

The company said 225 people are working for 15 Maine-based construction contractors on the project.

The pipeline already is in place, ready to be connected at the new hospital and university. Pipeline installation will start this week at the university and other connections will be made when crews finish the backbone sections this fall. Maine Natural Gas has contracts with The Maine Veterans Home, numerous hotels including the Senator Inn and Spa, apartment complexes serving more than 150 units, Lowe’s, Charlie’s Motor Mall, NRF Distributors and more than 150 other commercial properties, according to the company email.  

Also, more than 150 Augusta homeowners have expressed interest. The company is signing up residential customers in Mayfair neighborhood to connect in the fall and will continue to market and expand into other neighborhoods.

Converting to natural gas

Waterville City Manager Michael Roy says decisions about whether city buildings will concert to natural gas will be made on a building-by-building basis.

“I don’t think it’s a given that we’ll go automatically to natural gas in every single facility,” he said. “For instance, the new police station is very, very well-insulated and has propane heat.”

Roy said City Hall, which is heated with oil, could convert to natural gas.

“It’s probably the best candidate for conversion but then again, we didn’t budget anything for what the conversion would cost.”

Roy said three questions will have to be answered in determining what buildings would convert.

“Is it cost effective, what’s the payback and how would it be financed?” he said.

Since the budget for the current year has been decided, it is unlikely that the city would convert the buildings this year, he said.

“I certainly don’t see it happening for this coming heating season,” he said.

Like Haley, Roy said he is excited about the prospect of paying lower heating costs, but it is important to consider the cost effectiveness of conversion.

Minkos said most people who burn oil can install a conversion burner in their homes and keep the same boiler.

With current energy costs, a homeowner could save between $1,000 and $1,200 a year in heating costs by converting to natural gas, he said. A simple conversion burner could cost $2,000 or $3,000 for the average homeowner; a more efficient, state-of-the-art, heating system could cost between $5,000 and $7,000, according to Minkos. The conversion process is relatively quick and takes a day or two, he said.

Welcoming natural gas

Before Summit made a commitment to bring natural gas to Waterville, people in the city were working with the company to help identify the best places to put the pipeline, according to Mayor Karen Heck.

Waterville, Winslow, MaineGeneral Medical Center, Inland Hospital, Waterville Development Corp. and Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, funded a natural gas study and members of the local grassroots organization, Sustain Mid-Maine, and others, worked hard on it, Heck said.

“It (the study) looked at where the load is,” she said, “and we were able to tell Summit to change their plans for where to bring gas first and talk to them about where it would be most advantageous for them and the town because their plans didn’t include information about where the best load opportunity was for distribution. We were able to get them to come down Main Street first.”

Heck said people have been waiting a long time for natural gas to come to Waterville because of the economic opportunities it presents. They will have more money in their pockets as a result, she said.

“Any money that they don’t have to pay to heat their homes is money that is benefiting the rest of the local economy,” she said.

Heck said she is excited about the arrival of natural gas and hopes Congress will figure out a way to make sure gas is obtained in a safe way.

“I’m very interested in how it’s procured and that is the responsibility of the Congress to people who care about it. It’s a resource we have and we just have to make sure we take advantage of it in a safe way.”

Heck said that having natural gas “will be huge” for the local economy.

“I’m very proud of the fact that Waterville was in a very good position to negotiate with Summit because of the investment the community made in having the study done,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]