AUGUSTA — Converting the Augusta Civic Center to heat with natural gas isn’t going to be quite as easy, nor nearly as cheap, as officials had thought.

A Summit Natural Gas of Maine gas line has already been run to the city-owned auditorium and convention center, and officials had planned to have the arena’s boilers converted and burning natural gas by now.

Ralph St. Pierre, assistant city manager and finance director, said city officials believed switching the Civic Center’s multiple boilers from propane to natural gas would be a simple and relatively cheap process.

“We assumed we could just change the nozzles and convert it,” St. Pierre said. “That was a bad assumption. When we went to the manufacturer, they said our boilers cannot be converted from propane to natural gas.”

So instead of looking at a conversion cost of a few thousand dollars, the city could be facing a cost of between $150,000 to $250,000 to replace the propane boilers with new high-efficiency natural gas boilers to heat most of the building.

Nine boilers in the north wing of the Civic Center, which was built after the original building went up, can be converted from propane to natural gas at a cost of about $1,000 each, according to Dana Colwill, director of the Civic Center.

However, the nine boilers that heat the air and water at the Civic Center cannot be converted to natural gas.

St. Pierre said replacing the unconvertible boilers at the building with natural gas boilers will be included in a proposal for other energy efficiency upgrades to the Civic Center and other city property, which he’ll likely present to councilors next month.

The approximately $2 million energy efficiency proposal would also include the installation of a microturbine at the Civic Center, similar to microturbines recently installed at Augusta City Center.

Microturbines use small jet engine-like turbines to produce electricity. The turbines, as they make electricity, also put off heat, so they are cooled with water. That heated water, in turn, is used to augment the building’s heating system.

“That will reduce both their gas consumption and their electricity consumption,” St. Pierre said.

The boilers that would be replaced are believed to be between 25 and 30 years old.

“At least the timing is good, it’s not like we just bought them three years ago,” Colwill said.

St. Pierre said the Civic Center’s annual energy costs, including both heat and electricity, now average about $250,000 a year. The proposed energy efficiency upgrades are expected to reduce that cost by about $130,000 a year.

He said the city may be able to pay for the upgrades with revenue generated from the city’s Marketplace at Augusta tax increment financing district.

The district is a public financing tool to help economic development projects. State law allows municipalities to capture the value of property taxes from new development within the district. Municipalities sometimes give some or all of that revenue back to the developer of a private project in the form of tax break, as an incentive to locate there. Municipalities can also, as St. Pierre proposes, keep new property taxes generated within a district, and spend them on certain allowed uses, one of which is economic development.

St. Pierre said infrastructure improvements to the Augusta Civic Center would be considered economic development because the property, he said, is an economic engine for the area, drawing people to north Augusta.

Sheltering money in special tax districts also can save the city money by delaying a tax shift that occurs when a municipality’s property valuation increases because of new development. When the city’s property tax value increases without a tax increment financing district in place, the amount of state aid for schools and other state revenue drops, and its share of county taxes goes up.

The city originally planned to convert the Civic Center to natural gas last summer as part of a project converting City Center, Buker Center and the combined Cony High School and Capital Area Technical Center campus to natural gas.

Part of that first round of energy efficiency upgrades did include the installation of solar hot air panels on the south wall of the Civic Center, at a cost of about $400,000. The panels were turned on in November, Colwill said.

The panels draw heat from the sun as it hits the wall, and pull the heated air they create into the Civic Center auditorium, where two large ducts bring the air in and push it down to the floor.

Colwill said the panels are meant to supplement the heating system. Instead of the system having to heat air pulled directly from outside, from 10 degrees to 70 degrees, it can take air partially heated by the solar panels, and thus have to heat that air from 50 to 60 degrees up to 70 degrees.

“When the sun is out, we’re capturing some of that heat and bringing it into the auditorium,” Colwill said. “It has made it much more comfortable. We don’t have the cold spots we used to have.”

Colwill said the panels haven’t been installed long enough yet to determine how much money they will save from the city’s heating costs.

St. Pierre said the proposal for the Civic Center and other proposed energy upgrades to city buildings will likely be ready to be reviewed by councilors at their Thursday, Feb. 13, meeting.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 kedwards@centralmaine.com