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Kathryn Eiseman: Berkshire Gas must widen supply options



Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Questionable business decisions led to the Berkshire Gas Co.’s moratorium on new and expanded service in the Pioneer Valley.

The company then put on blinders against any way to end the moratorium other than Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline. Our communities would be wise not to accept Berkshire Gas’ latest vision of the paths forward to end the moratorium: the company’s tunnel vision leaves too many options unexplored and too many questions unanswered.

The two options to lift the moratorium that Berkshire Gas now puts on the table are in fact intended to allow the company to more than double the amount of gas it sells in the Pioneer Valley.

One proposal — a new pipeline down to Kinder Morgan’s mainline in southern Massachusetts — would cost about $60 million, and the other — a massive new liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage facility in Franklin County — would cost about twice that. Ratepayers would fund whatever new infrastructure is built.

The new pipeline option that Berkshire envisions would be 19 miles long and 12 inches in diameter, running through unspecified Hampshire and Hampden County communities to make a new connection between the existing systems of Berkshire Gas and Kinder Morgan. The hypothetical new LNG facility would have a capacity of half a billion cubic feet; this size tank is typically more than 10 stories high.

Either of these options floated by Berkshire Gas at the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) would also require the construction of 16 miles of additional pipeline parallel to the company’s existing lines in the upper Pioneer Valley.

Other options exist. Berkshire has rejected, out of hand, targeted infrastructure modifications to end the moratorium that were recommended by a gas market expert hired by the town of Montague in a previous proceeding concerning the NED project. He recommended immediate upgrades to approximately two miles of Berkshire’s pipeline in Franklin County and, if necessary, adding a much smaller LNG tank to the company’s Whately LNG facility, at an estimated total cost (tank and upgrades) of around $10 million.

Demand-reduction opportunities also must not be overlooked. Massachusetts law mandates that “natural gas resource needs shall first be met through all available energy efficiency and demand reduction resources that are cost effective or less expensive than supply.” Gas saved through improved demand management would be available for new customers.

Are community members — gas customers and others — taking full advantage of energy efficiency programs offered through MassSave? Is Berkshire Gas doing all it should to promote its energy efficiency programs? Experts in energy efficiency and demand management dispute Berkshire’s claims that significant cost-effective energy savings are no longer available to the company.

Certainly the region will be better off if more of us reduce our consumption of oil and gas by harnessing efficiency and sustainably sited renewables, rather than perpetuating the fossil fuel shell game. Data regarding the amount of methane released in shale gas extraction and transportation suggest that climate benefits of natural gas over other fossil fuels is minimal or nonexistent.

On an individual level: if you are going to go through the expense of installing a new heating system, might you be better off with high-efficiency heat pumps or upgrading your oil furnace rather than switching to another fossil fuel?

Do ratepayers really want to pay for massive gas infrastructure expansions designed to last for generations, when cleaner alternatives are increasingly available?

This year, Northeast Biodiesel in Greenfield started producing biodiesel, made from recycled cooking oil from area restaurants, yielding a life-cycle greenhouse gas emission profile 86 percent lower than diesel and gasoline emissions. This clean-sourced biodiesel can not only power vehicles, but heat your home.

Farms in Hampshire and Franklin Counties are installing anaerobic digesters to heat and power their farms with farm and food waste, and selling electricity to the grid. Ongoing efforts toward more energy self-sufficiency at UMass could reduce the university’s reliance on Berkshire Gas.

It’s ultimately up to stakeholders engaged at the DPU to make sure that Berkshire Gas does not stake out a plan that locks in an oversized role for fracked gas in our communities. It’s also up to community members to engage on this issue now with our elected officials. Economic development tied to greatly increased fossil fuel combustion does not reflect the vision and innovation we are capable of here in the Knowledge Corridor. Nor is it a viable model for complying with the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

Berkshire Gas should take a serious look at updating its business model if it wants to provide services that align with the goals and needs of our region. Otherwise, the company may ultimately be left behind, while trailblazers lead the way to more sustainable, thriving communities in the Pioneer Valley

Kathryn R. Eiseman, of Cummington, is director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network, and president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc.