Between 2007 and 2008, Francois Bussiere spent $7,000 on heating oil.

Sure, his Auburn apartment building was old, and, sure, it had three units in it. But $7,000 to heat the place for 18 months? He couldn’t believe it.

And he couldn’t afford it.

So in 2008, Bussiere wrote another check, this one for a new natural gas heating system. The cost: $10,500.

Less than four years later Bussiere figures the change has paid for itself. His heating bill now averages less than $3,000 a year.

“It’s like $3.79 (a gallon) or something like that for heating oil now?” he said. “Oh my god, I’d be broke.”

Since 2007, natural gas use has skyrocketed in Maine, driven by rising oil prices, falling natural gas prices and growing availability. One of Maine’s three natural gas distributors has 3,000 to 4,000 customers and it’s getting 1,000 requests for new service a year. 

Natural gas devotees like the price. They like the fact that it burns cleaner than some other fuels and it’s supplied from the U.S. and Canada. But there is a drawback.

Not everyone can get it, even if they want to.

Cheaper and cheaper

Because Maine is the end of the line for natural gas coming up from the Gulf Coast, the state has historically seen few pipelines and little gas infrastructure. For decades, natural gas was available in few places in Maine, other than the Portland area and Lewiston-Auburn.

That changed in the late 1990s when two major pipelines came down from northern and eastern Canada and met near Westbrook. Those pipelines allowed new projects to develop and made natural gas more available.

Still, gas pipelines are expensive to lay. Distributors typically want one or two large “anchor” customers — a mill, for example, or a major retailer — before they’ll commit to laying lines in an area. 

“You don’t build a $50 million pipeline to someplace and then hope that somebody signs up,” said Ken Fletcher, head of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.

Oil requires no underground pipelines and no major infrastructure to get it from distributor to customer. It’s long been king in Maine. In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, about 80 percent of households used oil or kerosene as their primary source of heat. For families, it was cleaner and easier than wood, and it was cheaper than electricity.

Oil still reigns, but high prices, market volatility and concern about reliance on overseas sources have made its popularity wane. The number of households using oil or kerosene has dropped to about 74 percent.

At the same time, natural gas use has risen. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine residents and businesses used 18 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2000. In 2009, the latest figures available from the administration, that number jumped to 33 billion cubic feet. The Northeast Gas Association now puts that number at 76 billion cubic feet.

Experts say price has a lot to do with it. In recent years, new extraction technology has led to a surge in supply, which has forced down the price. Warm winters, like this past one, lower demand and drop the price even more.

In years past, oil and natural gas prices ran parallel. Sometimes natural gas was more expensive than oil for the same amount of energy.

But experts say Mainers who use natural gas now are spending 30 percent to 60 percent less than they would on heating oil. A heating fuel comparison calculator by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows heating oil at $3.85 a gallon translates into spending $27.76 for a million BTUs of energy, while natural gas at $1.40 a therm means spending $14 for a million BTUs.

In recent years, anchor customers, like L.L. Bean in Freeport, have taken notice. It switched nine retail, office and distribution buildings from propane and oil to natural gas in 2010 and 2011. It expects to save about $150,000 a year.

 “We’ve been thrilled,” said spokeswoman Carolyn Beem.

As distributors lay lines for large customers or make upgrades, small business and residential customers have a chance to connect.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte wasn’t ready to switch to gas when Unitil offered him the opportunity several years ago while it was upgrading its lines. But last fall, cost changed his mind.

LaBonte’s 79-year-old, two-story house was eating through $2,000 worth of oil each winter, plus hundreds more in the summer to heat his hot water.

“I was getting to the point where just to manage the use of oil (I would) turn it on in the morning, give it 20 minutes, take a hot shower, then go and turn it off for the rest of the day,” he said. “Over the course of the summer, you could burn through half a tank at 4 bucks a gallon.”

With help from a small energy-efficiency grant from Efficiency Maine, LaBonte spent $5,000 on a new natural gas system. Using gas, he spent $700 to heat his home this past season.

Although this winter was warmer than normal, LaBonte believes he’ll save enough even in very cold months to pay for the installation within a few years. 

“If I have an extra couple of thousand dollars a year, that either helps me pay other bills or it’s money I can spend on other projects at my house or spend in the economy,” he said.

While cost was a motivation for Bussiere too, so was the idea of getting his heat from the U.S. and Canada, rather than from overseas,

“Put it in our pocket, not in theirs, you know?” he said.

Bussiere also liked that gas burned cleaner than his oil furnace.

“Since it’s been installed, I never had it cleaned,” he said. “So I had the guy do it just for precaution this year. He said, ‘You didn’t need it.'”

Expansion

Maine has three authorized natural gas distributors: Unitil, whose service area includes Lewiston-Auburn, greater Portland and Kittery; Bangor Gas Co., whose service area includes Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Orono and Veazie; and Maine Natural Gas, whose service area includes Brunswick, Bowdoin, Gorham, Topsham and Windham. All have seen an increase in customers.

The largest of the three, Unitil has about 27,000 residential and business customers. Over the past few years it’s grown about 2.5 percent a year, adding nearly 700 customers a year.

At Maine Natural Gas, officials say they serve more than 2,700 customers, but it’s difficult to get an accurate count.

“It changes every day because we keep adding,” Vice President Darrel Quimby said.

Bangor Natural Gas has 3,000 to 4,000 customers and is getting 1,000 new service inquiries a year. It’s laying gas lines as fast as it can.

“It’s to the point where there’s not a large enough window for the construction in Maine to get them all installed and turned on,” said Jon Kunz, marketing and sales manager. “So we do have carryover each year. Our construction right now is scheduled all the way into November.”

According to the Northeast Gas Association, about 4 percent of Maine households use natural gas as their primary source of heat. Gov. Paul LePage and his administration would like to see that number grow. 

“We think we need energy diversity,” said Fletcher of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security. “We want to look at everything. We don’t want to get trapped with one potential fuel source that five, six, 20 years from now ends up being not as available and, therefore, the price goes up. It’s one of many options.”

To help ensure it’s an option for more Mainers and businesses, the state recently asked for bids on an Augusta and Rockland-area natural gas pipeline that would allow state buildings and the Maine State Prison in Warren to connect to natural gas. Because that bid request didn’t clearly state that officials want the winning bidder to expand to towns along the Kennebec River, the state canceled the request and reissued it this week.

But even as interest in natural gas is skyrocketing, experts say some people are going to be disappointed by its lack of availability. About 4 percent of households have natural gas now; experts don’t see that going to 100 percent, or even 50 percent. It costs a lot to lay pipes and Maine’s population is spread out.

“We’re probably not going to get more than, say, 10 to 15 percent expanded, just because Maine is challenged because of the (lack of) population density,” Fletcher said.

To make it more enticing to distributors, some towns are courting potential anchors on their own or paying for surveys to show residents would sign up for natural gas.

Madison went a step further recently when it considered spending $72 million to lay natural gas lines on its own and serve as its own distributor. A November vote on the issue failed by 14 votes, but a citizens’ petition brought the proposal back before voters this spring. A week before the vote, the town made a deal with a natural gas distributor for service.

Some individuals are pushing for more gas lines, too. David Hargreaves recently went to Farmington’s town manager to encourage him to work on getting gas in that town. Hargreaves lives in New Vineyard, but he figures Farmington would get it that much closer to him. 

“I wish we could get a lot more people interested in this,” he said.

 But even for those with access to natural gas, there are downsides.

Although gas may be cheap, its equipment is not. Switching from one heating fuel to another can require the purchase of a new burner at best or an entirely new heating system at worst, running from several hundred dollars to several thousand.

Although the price is low now, some experts say it could go up as demand increases and the U.S. begins sending its supply overseas.

Although buyers may like that natural gas is a domestic product, it isn’t always. Nor is heating oil always from far-flung foreign sources. Most of Maine’s natural gas, for example, comes from Canada. Jamie Pye, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association (formerly the Maine Oil Dealers Association), pointed out that more than half of America’s heating oil comes from America, Canada and Mexico. Crude oil is similar, he said.

His suggestion for consumers looking to switch: Buy a boiler that is compatible with both fuels. 

Still, natural gas devotees say they can’t imagine ever using anything else.

Roger Pelletier switched his Lewiston garage, Roger’s Service Center, from oil to natural gas in the early 1970s. It worked so well and saved him so much money that he made sure the next home he bought in Lewiston had a gas connection. He bought that home 26 years ago and still loves it. 

Though he can’t help but keep tabs on oil prices.

“I’m not a good Catholic, but I thank God every time I look at the paper,” he said.

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