Cumberland, Falmouth, Yarmouth leaders move closer to natural gas deal

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YARMOUTH — The town councils of Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth – which last month endorsed a Summit Natural Gas proposal to extend service into their towns – expect at their upcoming meetings to vote on a memorandum of understanding with the company.

The councils met at Town Hall Tuesday to discuss the Colorado-based company’s project, which Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane said would include laying 1.2 million feet of pipe in the three towns.

Brunswick-based Maine Natural Gas, which is owned by Iberdrola USA – the Rochester, N.Y.-based parent company of Central Maine Power Co. – submitted a competing proposal to provide the service. Although the towns are backing Summit’s bid, the state Public Utilities Commission will ultimately decide which company gets the work.

The memorandum with Summit – the language of which was drafted by the town managers – would establish a working relationship with the towns. The non-legally binding document says they “have a common interest in safely and efficiently providing natural gas to the residents, businesses and government institutions” of the communities, and to “outline the understandings and intentions of each party with regard to the achievement of this shared objective.”

But a section of the agreement on environmental considerations drew resistance from some councilors.

It calls for Summit to “explore, consider and evaluate opportunities by which the company and its customers may contribute on a voluntary basis to energy efficiency programs or greenhouse gas reduction programs through a voluntary customer surcharge or the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets.”

Shane said after the meeting that he felt the councilors thought the administration piece would be a burden on Summit; the company would have to collect the 5 percent surcharge and send a check to the towns, and with more than 5,000 customers, that would be a lot of work.

The question would also remain of what the towns would do with the funds, Shane said: who would dole out the money, and would the towns would have to hire staff to administer the money, for programs like winterization and weatherization?

Shane noted on Wednesday that once Summit reaches 5,000 customers in Maine, the PUC would impose a 3 percent surcharge that would go toward funding Efficiency Maine.

In a document shared Tuesday by Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, Summit addressed several questions about natural gas service expansion that had been asked at recent council meetings.

The company noted that natural gas produces about 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than heating oil, and that based on estimated customer counts and use predictions for the communities, the region would see an average carbon dioxide emission reduction of 47 percent, or 54,000 tons.

Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper pointed out that a homeowner in his town, paying nearly $3,000 in taxes and spending $3,375 a year on oil (burning 900 gallons at $3.75 a gallon) could save 35 percent by switching to natural gas. The $1,200 savings would equal 41 percent of that homeowner’s tax bill, he said.

Shane solicited proposals last fall from three companies on behalf of the towns, which see natural gas as a less expensive way than oil to heat buildings. A natural gas pipeline already runs through the western part of Cumberland.

Summit, which has more than 33,000 customers in Colorado and Missouri, also expects to serve 17,000 in the Kennebec Valley by 2014. The company has projected 86 percent saturation in the three Cumberland County communities within five years, or nearly 7,700 customers, and 95 percent saturation within eight years, or more than 9,100 customers.

“The saturation of this from Summit is huge,” Cumberland Councilor Ron Copp said. “… Just in our schools and our municipal buildings alone we’re going to save $100,000 a year in heating oil. … How hard is it to eliminate $100,000 from your budget? It’s not easy.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.