Will natural gas alleviate Maine’s energy woes?

George Paton, director of facilities at Hyde School, with the two natural gas burners in the basement of the school's mansion in Bath.
George Paton, director of facilities at Hyde School, with the two natural gas burners in the basement of the school’s mansion in Bath. (PHOTO / TIM GREENWAY)

Mainebiz, September 2, 2013 – by Lori Valigra

When natural gas from a pipeline starts flowing into UPM Madison’s heating furnaces late this year, it will be a fuel conversion several decades in the making and a move General Manager Russ Drechsel expects will boost the paper mill’s competitiveness.

Drechsel’s story is playing out in businesses and homes alike through Maine, which ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the number of homes heated by natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Only 4% of Maine homes are heated with natural gas compared to 51% U.S.-wide. Most Mainers, some 80%, heat their homes with oil, followed by propane at 5% and electricity at 4%. Various sources quote cost savings of anywhere from 35% to 50% in converting from oil to pipeline natural gas, which for a consumer paying $3,000 to heat his home for a season means up to $1,500 less for fuel. That has some companies and consumers signing up for natural gas as soon as it’s available.

“It’s like the wild, wild west,” says Chris Green, president of heating, ventilation and air conditioning company Mechanical Services Inc. of Portland, which expects to add a couple million dollars this year to its fuel-conversion business, comprising 10% of the company’s revenue. Gas conversions are boosting business quickly for HVAC companies like Green’s: he’s also looking to hire four to six more workers.

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