GARDINER — Natural gas is coming.

It’s a line the city has heard for more than a decade, but this time it appears natural gas will be coming sooner rather than later.

One of the two natural gas companies competing in central Maine submitted a proposal to provide schools and city buildings with service sometime this year.

The other company maintains it plans to serve Gardiner and could do so soon with compressed natural gas and a smaller distribution system.

The possibilities leave city and school district officials grappling with the uncertainties of when and how natural gas will arrive.

Regional School Unit 11 spends more than $350,000 a year on heating oil for its seven schools and is anxious to switch to a cheaper option.

“Given the strain on the school budget, we’ve got to make a change,” said Eric Jermyn, vice chairman of the school board and chairman of the finance committee. “We have to make a decision, and we have to make it soon. We can’t continue to keep burning money, which we’re doing by staying committed to No. 2 heating oil.”

Jermyn is heading a newly created subcommittee to discuss various heating alternatives and to recommend a change to the school board.

“It’s just not the most cost-efficient fuel for us,” Jermyn said of heating oil. “Given the age of some of our boilers in our buildings, the time is right.”

Switching to a cheaper heating source hasn’t been as pressing an issue for the city since it converted City Hall and the public works garage to a wood-pellet boiler system in the last few years.

However, the city’s top administrator hopes natural gas pipelines built in Gardiner will boost tax revenue and provide residents and businesses with another heating option.

“It’s one piece of several that are very important to helping balance the budget going forward,” City Manager Scott Morelli said. “We’re going to be facing a pretty good deficit next year, and the way forward is through enhanced revenue and trying to contain spending as much as we can.”

Neighboring communities issued a joint request for proposals in March to natural gas companies to provide service to buildings in Gardiner, Augusta and Hallowell in hope of realizing economies of scale through a larger customer base.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine gave the most detailed response for distributing to Gardiner, while Maine Natural Gas gave only a timetable for serving Augusta.

Maine Natural Gas said it eventually would expand to the communities north and south of Augusta.

Summit’s proposal said service would be available this year for Gardiner Area High School, Gardiner Regional Middle School, Laura E. Richards School, River View Community School, Gardiner Public Library and the wastewater treatment plant.

Morelli said the communities that issued the RFP eventually will meet to make a decision on the proposals.

Unlike Gardiner, Augusta received complete proposals from both companies.

The Augusta City Council decided last week to hire a consultant to review the two proposals. Augusta must choose between Maine Natural Gas, which is offering lower delivery costs, and Summit, which is proposing to serve more of the surrounding communities sooner.

Michael Duguay, director of business development for Summit, wouldn’t say what the effect would be on Gardiner if Augusta rejects Summit’s proposal and chooses Maine Natural Gas.

“We’re sort of anxiously waiting (to see) which way the communities are going to go with this,” he said. “At this point in time, that’s where we stand.”

“Clearly we’d like to serve the broadest amount in those respective areas, and that’s what we plan to do,” he added.

Dan Hucko, spokesman for Iberdrola USA, the parent company of Maine Natural Gas and Central Maine Power Co., said it’s always been the company’s plan to build pipeline to Gardiner once the demand called for it.

In the meantime, Hucko said, it can provide compressed natural gas to customers in Gardiner and other surrounding communities that won’t be reached by a pipeline soon.

Maine Natural Gas will work with Xpress Natural Gas to compress the natural gas and truck it to decompresser stations with smaller distribution systems, he said.

The smaller distribution pipelines then will pump natural gas into homes, business and schools, just as a pipeline built from Augusta would, Hucko said.

The price of delivery of compressed natural gas would include the trucking cost, but Hucko said the company thinks it probably still would be lower than Summit’s delivery costs.

Once they get a commitment from enough customers, Hucko said, they could build the smaller distribution system in six months.

The RSU 11 school board could opt for something other than natural gas, such as wood pellets.

There are various options for converting to the different heating sources, including buying new boilers for all schools or just upgrading the burners to handle to something different, such as propane.

The subcommittee plans to use an energy study done two years ago to help with estimated costs and savings, Superintendent Pat Hopkins said.

According to Jon Stonier, director of operations for the district, the initial cost for converting to wood-pellet boilers would be slightly higher than that of natural gas — $1.1 million to $1.3 million, compared to $1 million or a little less for natural gas.

The study gave a slightly higher savings estimate for wood pellets, but natural gas still would save an expected $140,000 to $150,000 annually, almost half of the district’s heating bill.

Stonier said he prefers natural gas from a maintenance director’s standpoint because it’s more convenient, cleaner and easier to maintain.

“I just want to make sure we guide the school in the right direction,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer, too.”

Jermyn said the school board could use a bond to pay for the conversion costs of a new system.

Next year’s budget already is finished and will be sent to voters in June, so any change would need to be factored into the following year’s budget.

Jermyn said a meeting with the two natural gas companies at the end of last year led to more questions about when they could begin providing to Gardiner.

“Those are the kinds of twists and turns that we’ve seen that make us really, like I said, cautiously optimistic that (natural gas) is going to be an opportunity for us,” Jermyn said.

“We’re certainly not putting all our eggs in the natural gas basket at this point.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]

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