Frontier: Costs guide gas extensions
by Anna Oakes
Frontier Natural Gas representatives say estimated energy demand and cost of installing lines are factors in the extension of natural gas service to neighborhoods in the Boone area.
Last week, a resident from the New Market Estates neighborhood appeared before the Boone Town Council to express frustrations with the subdivision's inability to receive natural gas service and to ask the town to intervene.
"Frontier welcomes the opportunity to meet with citizens to discuss getting gas to their community," said Stephanie Barker, sales manager for Frontier Natural Gas, in a statement to Watauga Democrat. "Our objective is to provide safe, reliable, cost-effective service to those customers who want natural gas. Unfortunately not all projects can be installed economically."
Frontier Natural Gas signed a franchise agreement with the town of Boone in 1997 and completed a transmission pipeline into Watauga County in May 2002. In 2007, Montana-based Energy West Inc. purchased the company and has invested $18 million in infrastructure growth since then, Barker said.
Barker said Frontier currently serves 116 residential customers and 193 commercial customers in Watauga County.
"Recent (residential) projects installed in the Watauga area are Poplar Hill Drive, Coventry Lane, Fairview Drive, Poplar Summit Road, Council Oaks, and, this year, Grand Boulevard," said Barker.
Speaking to the Boone Town Council in November 2011, Frontier representatives said the estimated energy consumption (load) to be generated from a neighborhood had to justify the cost of extending lines to the neighborhood, which in Boone is affected by the rough terrain of the mountains.
"We're going to get to people. We've got to be able to put line in and have load," said Jeff Trexler, who at the time was the sales and marketing manager for Frontier. "Commercials, I'll be honest with you, they do have the load. When it comes to residential, you have to have many people. The time it takes to get everybody -- it takes time."
Trexler said the presence of rock increased the cost of some projects.
"There's rock. Poplar Hill -- we lost a lot of money on it," he said. "You learn. The environment, the construction here is different."
Barker said that when projects do not meet a specified rate of return, customers are then given the opportunity to provide a contribution in aid of construction.
"The amount of contribution is based on the cost of the project and the natural gas load associated with it," she said.
Matt Bagley, the New Market Estates resident who appeared before the council last week, said his neighborhood of 26 homes was able to negotiate a 10-year cost-sharing plan with Frontier Natural Gas, but he asked the town to inquire why other neighborhoods in town were not granted the same opportunity.
"No other neighborhood had been offered a cost-share plan," Bagley said.
Councilwoman Lynne Mason, a resident of the New Market Estates neighborhood, said she and others had requested information about the feasibility studies Frontier uses to determine neighborhood extension costs but that the company would not produce that information.
Various sources estimate converting to natural gas can save consumers 40 percent or more on their home heating bills.
Megan Lynch Ellis, who currently uses propane to heat her home, said her downtown neighborhood has been seeking natural gas service for years. Efforts included sending letters to neighbors, holding meetings with a Frontier representative at the library, walking door to door handing out contracts and repeatedly following up with the company.
"I (as well as the rest of my neighbors) felt that we got the run-around time and time again," said Ellis. "They are finally in the neighborhood installing, but I am not sure that I will have it this winter. I have never tried so hard to give a company my money."
Frontier serves Watauga, Ashe, Surry, Wilkes, Yadkin and Warren counties and is one of six natural gas companies regulated by the N.C. Utilities Commission. No records of complaints or investigations currently appear on the N.C. Utilities Commission's online docket list for Frontier Natural Gas.
Barker encouraged residents to contact her at (336) 526-2690 to discuss future growth planned for the area.
"We are eager and willing to work with residents to find solutions to getting natural gas to them in a timely manner," she said.