Utilities officials update progress on regional gas line replacement

Norwich - For Norwich Public Utilities crews, summer was no vacation as they crammed to finish 18 months of work replacing some of the city's oldest gas lines.

The work had to be done quickly, by mid-August, just ahead of the state Department of Transportation contractors who started repaving Route 12 from Preston through Norwich to the Lisbon line last week.

NPU officials Wednesday summed up work done under both the $1.8 million Route 12 gas modernization project and the continuing $11 million gas line expansion project.

Chris LaRose, NPU assistant general manager, said some cast-iron pipes in NPU's system date back to 1904, when the then-privately owned utility produced its own low-pressure gas by burning coal at a North Main Street generating plant.

Gas streetlights then lined city streets, and gas lights were common fixtures in urban homes.

NPU removed 9,000 feet of old cast-iron pipe - some of it no longer in use or not needed - and replaced it with more than 5,500 feet of new flexible polyethylene pipe expected to last the next 100 years.

LaRose said the modernization project is being funded through a capital improvement portion of ratepayers' bills. Over the next 20 years, NPU hopes to replace all older cast-iron gas lines.

The separate $11 million gas expansion project was approved by Norwich voters in two referendum bonds of $5.5 million each in 2010 and 2012. No taxpayer money or current ratepayer money is used for the project. Instead, NPU expands lines only in neighborhoods where enough people agree to sign up to pay for the line through future ratepayer revenue.

Last week, NPU completed an expansion line to the Oakland Heights Mobile Home Park off Hunters Road. All 158 mobile home owners in the park agreed to convert from propane heat to natural gas. NPU officials calculated potential energy savings for residents at about $80,000 per year - $50 per month per home, $560 per year.

While the gas expansion project started in 2011, the Energize Norwich partnership with the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and SmartPower just marked its first anniversary.

The partnership has combined an aggressive marketing effort to explain the gas expansion to Norwich residents and offer incentive grants, rebates and low-cost financing programs to reach more potential customers. The effort has paid off, NPU officials said Wednesday.

In the first two years, about 600 new natural gas customers were added. Last year alone, 744 new customers signed up to receive natural gas service. In the past year, Energize Norwich has paid out $281,458 in incentives to new customers and another $197,800 in rebates for energy efficient equipment.

About $300,000 remains in the $11 million bonds, and that money is expected to be spent by spring. The Norwich City Council agreed to place a third $9.5 million referendum bond question on the Nov. 4 ballot. If approved by voters, the project again would be funded by future connections and not by current ratepayers or taxpayers.

Katie Moors, the contact person in the NPU Energy Efficiency Department, said about 450 potential customers have expressed interest in receiving natural gas if a new expansion reaches their neighborhoods.

The new $9.5 million bond would be divided into three projects: $5.5 million for gas line expansion, $2 million for a possible future gas line down Route 12 to the former Norwich Hospital in Preston and $2 million to finish installing new automated meters for all 8,000 Norwich gas customers.

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