The municipal utilities that serve Holyoke and Middleborough just imposed separate moratoriums on new natural gas hookups, citing supply constraints. Is your community close behind?
Probably not. The two biggest gas providers in Massachusetts, National Grid and Eversource, say their supplies are adequate for now.
But some in the industry speculate that we’re approaching a major inflection point, as the region’s strained pipeline system shows signs of failing to keep up with demand. Pipeline expansions get more difficult to build politically every year. To the anti-gas forces in the environmental community, the moratoriums reaffirm their arguments about the need to wean Massachusetts off the fossil fuel.
That won’t be easy. Natural gas remains a dominant fuel source for New England’s power plants. It also remains the preferred heat source for any new developments — except in the growing list of communities with moratoriums in place.
These bans on new hookups started popping up in Western Massachusetts about four years ago. Berkshire Gas imposed moratoriums in an eight-town region stretching from Greenfield to Amherst; Columbia Gas did the same next door, in Easthampton and Northampton.
Northeast Energy Direct, the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal, could have helped ease the pain there. But resistance was too strong, and Kinder Morgan nixed it. Berkshire informed its waiting list of 300-plus potential new customers last fall that no help would be coming soon.
The capacity issues in that area eventually caught up with Holyoke Gas & Electric, which imposed its own moratorium on new service on Jan. 28. Columbia Gas is pursuing projects to increase circulation in the Springfield area. But those, too, face formidable opposition.
The Middleborough Gas and Electric Department moratorium this month was more of a surprise, the first true supply-related ban in the eastern part of the state. General manager Jackie Crowley told utility commissioners that a lateral pipeline that feeds Southeastern Massachusetts has been at capacity for some time. The utility’s system load has continued to grow, but there are no new projects on the horizon to address its need for more gas. Crowley says she wanted to get the word out before the spring construction season starts, so builders could seek alternatives.
As a small utility, it’s difficult financially for Middleborough to build liquefied gas storage tanks, to sock away gas for cold days when it’s in short supply. Crowley says she is talking to Algonquin pipeline owner Enbridge about increasing capacity, but a long-term solution could be years away.
Several Cape Cod towns already face similar bans on hookups, but a National Grid spokeswoman says those were imposed a few years ago to ensure system reliability while the company upgraded a mid-Cape pipeline. They are on track to be lifted this spring. But she also concedes the company could face challenges serving new natural gas customers given how hard it is to get a pipeline expansion approved.
Tamara Small, chief executive of developer group NAIOP Massachusetts, can’t help but feel the chill. NAOIP members already suffered through a lockout by National Grid of union workers and a state-imposed, safety-related moratorium last year. Those are over, but the backlog is considerable. The emergence of new moratoriums, she says, sends the wrong message to businesses looking to expand here.
The natural gas industry’s foes see these moratoriums as a sort of vindication. Environmental advocates say it’s time to get more serious about other, greener options: rolling out heat pumps for warmth, and turning to cleaner sources of electricity such as Canadian hydropower and offshore wind.
Maybe the industry is indeed reaching an important tipping point. But which way it will tip depends on who you ask.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.