Friday May 17, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Local officials and business leaders are exploring the idea of bringing a natural gas pipeline to Bennington after an Ohio-based developer proposed the idea of extending service from North Adams, Mass.

David Eigel, president of DEnergy Ltd., in Canton, Ohio, said an 18-mile pipeline can be installed, along with a distribution center in Bennington, for $20 to $25 million. Planning, permitting and construction would take about two years, he said.

Early stages

However, Eigel said he is only in the early stage of the process, which requires exploring interest among town governments and larger businesses in the area. An ad-hoc committee of officials and business leaders has been formed to gauge interest.

Bennington County Regional Commission Executive Director Jim Sullivan said he is helping Eigel contact area businesses and town officials, but his group has not taken any formal position.

"This is pretty embryonic and it’s driven by Mr. Eigel at this point," he said. "The benefit of it, in theory, is that natural gas is currently a lot less expensive than what most people use around here for their primary energy source."

Eigel said he has completed similar projects in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, constructing more than 600 miles of pipeline. Businesses and residents tend to choose natural gas as a source of heat and energy when given the option.


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"Natural gas is always the preferred fuel. It’s cheaper, cleaner burning, better for the environment," he said. "I know gas pretty much sells itself when its available."

Eigel first began considering the area as a potential site for natural gas about 10 years ago. "Bennington fit the bill pretty well because it’s a pretty good population and most people use oil as heating fuel," he said.

A pipeline to Bennington would involve burying a plastic, 12-inch diameter pipe from North Adams, Mass. It would require state approval to follow existing roadway easements. It would also require approval from the state’s Public Service Board and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because it would cross state lines.

Eigel said he is hoping to distribute a survey to area residents and businesses to determine interest within in the next three to six months.

"I think it has to be a local effort to start with. There has to be interest from the local government and from the businesses, especially. If there’s a positive response to the survey then we can start getting more serious about how it work," Eigel said. "What I would like to see happen with the survey is to talk about some of the numbers as well, so the homeowners would know what they’re committing to."

A natural gas pipeline project would most likely need to include an assessment, or tax, on properties within the distribution zone. That would help cover construction and distribution of gas, Eigel said. It also encourages property owners to connect to the system, he said.

"The one key thing to make a project like this work is you have to have some kind of commitment from property owners," he said. "Once they commit to pay a property tax then that would cover all of the cost of building it, including a meter on their house."

Sullivan said there is a real incentive now for bringing natural gas to Bennington because it could "dramatically" cut utility bills. Larger institutions like Southwestern Vermont Medical Center could see substantial savings, which could help attract new business.

"A huge user, like the hospital, which uses over 700,000 gallons of oil a year, if they switched over they could see Š $1 million-plus savings, potentially. So, it could be a significant economic driver to the region, too," Sullivan said.

Numbers provided by Eigel indicate natural gas could save an average home about 43 percent in heating costs compared to oil, and about 55 percent over electric.

However, there are other factors that must still be considered, Sullivan said. The cost of natural gas is likely to become more unstable in the future. "Right now we know what the price of natural gas is and we know what the price of oil is. By the time this thing gets built out, you don’t know," he said.

Accessing natural gas requires tracking, a relatively controversial practice, Sullivan said. It will be become more difficult to reach natural gas as more is used.

"We’re still fracking the fairly easy stuff. It’s going to get harder and harder because we’re still going after the low-hanging fruit," he said.

Still, Sullivan said he and other local officials plan to study the option and seek input from local businesses and residents.

"I’d say he’s serious," Sullivan said about Eigel. "He definitely has some credentials and it’s definitely real."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami