Editorial: Concord’s big steam problem

  • The Concord Steam Corporation plant on Pleasant Street at night.

Published: 9/11/2016 12:05:16 AM

There are 8 miles of steam pipes under Concord’s streets and sidewalks that no one wants to own.

The smallest is a mere 1 inch in diameter, the largest 12 inches. Some of the steel pipes date back to 1938 and are insulated with asbestos. And that’s only part of the problem created by the demise of Concord Steam.

Outmoded though it was, the steam plant, which burned wood chips to produce heat and electricity, was perhaps the “greenest” thing about the capital city. It used locally harvested, low-quality wood whose burning is nearly carbon neutral, provided jobs for plant workers, loggers and truckers, and the money it took in stayed in the community.

That will all change with the switch to natural gas, primarily from fracking, as a fuel.

The plant’s closing was no surprise; it has struggled for years.

It finally entered a death spiral as customers seeking big savings deserted in favor of natural gas, which raised prices for remaining customers. The speed of its closing, once the last funding attempt failed, is a surprise. It has the state scrambling to figure out how to find replacement heat for 25 buildings before the plant goes dark. That will probably require that the state run the steam plant itself and use the old pipes for a period of time. Does that mean that it will own them against its will? No one knows.

Four Concord School District schools use steam heat. Replacing those systems at Concord High, Rundlett, Christa McAuliffe and Abbott-Downing schools will cost an estimated $8.3 million in the short run and up to $21 million if 20-year-old air-handling systems at the older schools are also replaced and other improvements made.

The heat goes off next May, so there is no time to explore alternatives to natural gas. That’s the way it is, but it’s a shame because more carbon-friendly solutions might exist.

The problem that could be most noticeable to the public will likely occur downtown, where another 55 or so buildings use Concord Steam. The fear that some of them – after the city’s made a major investment in Main Street – could become vacant should their owners not have the resources to upgrade their heating system quickly is real.

Several buildings – among them the old Concord Theatre and the former home of Pitchfork Records on the corner of Pleasant and Main – have been empty or nearly so for years. Losing the ability to heat them without first making a six-figure investment doesn’t make it likely that they will be occupied soon.

On the plus side, the need to pay property taxes on a building that can’t generate income may prove to be an inducement to those owners to sell.

Concord Steam is doing all it can to ease the transition for customers. It is working to arrange financing so customers can manage the switch to natural gas without paying more than they currently do for steam. The company will host a public meeting at Red River Theatres on Sept. 21 at 5:30 p.m. to explain where things stand.

With luck and a lot of hard work, there will be heat in most or all of the 85 buildings that now rely on Concord Steam. But the company’s closing means that Concord’s future will be tied even more tightly to natural gas and the possibility of a crippling price increase like the one that occurred in 2014.

It’s also a step away from becoming a greener, more environmentally responsible city.

Concord Steam’s closing will not be a day to celebrate.




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