Gov. Paul LePage is right to say Maine needs natural gas. But getting more of the clean-burning, affordable fuel into the state will require a continued long-term effort on the part of not just the government, but also businesses, industrial operations and residents.
Natural gas pipeline networks are market-driven and will be built only where there is the demand to justify the cost of building them. The reality is that natural gas will likely not be piped to every rural area of the state. But, with oil currently costing about eight times as much as natural gas on an energy-equivalent basis, gas will become a greater part of the energy mix. Maine should be prepared to take advantage of the inexpensive resource to not only heat more homes but, when possible, generate more electricity and power vehicles.
Natural gas distributors need to build the infrastructure now in areas where it’s viable to do so, which may create more demand and more opportunities for different uses. The process is currently on standby in central Maine, where Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural gas are awaiting a decision from the state’s Bureau of General Services on which distributor will build an Augusta-area pipeline.
Natural gas is present in portions of Maine’s more populated areas. Unitil delivers natural gas to parts of the Portland area, Lewiston, Auburn and Kittery. Bangor Gas serves parts of Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Orono and Veazie. Maine Natural Gas serves parts of Windham, Gorham, Bowdoin, Topsham and Brunswick. In addition, natural gas is the dominant fuel for electricity generation in Maine and has accounted for at least 40 percent of generation since 2001,according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Portland, about half the bus fleet runs on natural gas.
Expanding the current piping network is complicated because putting in lines will mostly be up to private companies — although public entities can pursue doing so as well — and potential usage must to be high enough to warrant construction. No bank or investor will loan a company the money to build a line if the company can’t demonstrate its anticipated return; the Maine Public Utilities Commission requires a great enough demand, too. So this is where the matter gets local.
Town officials can work with interested pipeline developers and educate their communities about realistic benefits. Some industrial users, such as mills, have already found a way to operate with natural gas — either by connecting to an existing line, trucking in compressed natural gas or using it to generate electricity on site — but some have not yet made the change. They can examine whether to do so and be prepared.
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