Frontier Natural Gas pledges to be more responsive
by Anna Oakes
Representatives from Frontier Natural Gas on Thursday promised to be more accessible to area residents but said that economic feasibility will continue to guide expansion in the Boone area.
The Boone Town Council requested the update from Frontier following a complaint from a town resident at the council's November meeting. Councilwoman Lynne Mason -- whose own neighborhood has sought natural gas service for several years -- has repeatedly expressed frustration with what she views as an unhurried expansion to residential areas.
Dave Shipley, vice president of operations for Frontier Natural Gas parent company Energy West, acknowledged that communication and following up with requests were a problem in 2012.
"I completely agree that we dropped the ball in 2012 on things," Shipley said. "It's going to change." Shipley said Frontier would be more involved with the community and more interactive. He introduced Nick Geis, the sales associate for Watauga and Ashe counties, and noted that Frontier will maintain "more consistent" office hours going forward.
Frontier's Boone office is located at 147 Meadowview Dr.
But Shipley said the company's expansion locations are driven by cost considerations, and that's not about to change.
Frontier completed a transmission pipeline to Watauga County in May 2002. Frontier representatives have noted that the topography and rocky terrain in the mountains add to the costs of extending natural gas lines. The company must weigh the costs of laying the line against the expected energy demand, or "load," from potential customers. Shipley said Frontier generally looks for a rate of return between 10 and 15 percent.
"We learned a lot. We've got a better feel for what the cost is to get into the ground," he said. "It isn't easy."
Mason said she has asked to see the feasibility model for residential customers but that Frontier has refused to produce that information. Without seeing the model, Boone residents don't know if each neighborhood is being considered equally, she said.
"I have to be honest -- if you can't share a feasibility model, do you know how suspicious that looks?" Mason said.
Shipley said that Frontier can provide reasons why various neighborhoods have been approved or denied for service. Downtown Boone's Grand Boulevard neighborhood recently came online, he said, and its residences are situated closely together. Homes in the New Market Estates neighborhood, by contrast, are located farther apart, requiring more pipe, he said.
"We're not trying to be sneaky. I want to be very transparent," he said.
Councilman Rennie Brantz, a Grand Boulevard resident, noted that it took a long time to receive natural gas service, but "when it was done, it was done very professionally."
Frontier Natural Gas' new general manager, Darryl Knight, introduced himself to council members and asked them to call him with any concerns.