Downtown: Concord coalition backs petition for $1M fund to aid transition from steam

  • Hoses carrying gas are seen connected to a boiler furnace at the Concord Steam Corp. plant in Concord on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Elizabeth Frantz

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

  • Woman’s Club of Concord President Hansi Glahn looks over the area where the steam enters the building at 44 Pleasant St. recently. Under a petition submitted to state energy regulators last week, natural gas supplier Liberty Utilities conditionally agreed to provide $1 million to a fund designed to help Concord Steam customers make the conversion to natural gas. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 10/16/2016 11:46:52 PM

 Under a petition submitted to state energy regulators last week, natural gas supplier Liberty Utilities conditionally agreed to provide $1 million to a fund designed to help Concord Steam customers make the onerous and rushed conversion to natural gas.

The fund would pay for “some or all of the direct costs” incurred by non-governmental steam customers as they upgrade infrastructure and buy equipment to switch energy sources, according to the joint petition. Liberty Utilities would be allowed to recover the cost from its ratepayers.

The petition, which was drafted by state Sen. Dan Feltes, will be added to a list of considerations the Public Utilities Commission will have to make surrounding the planned closure of the 80-year-old steam supplier in May 2017.

It has significant backing, however, from 13 downtown businesses and nonprofits, as well as the city itself via the signature of City Manager Tom Aspell. Feltes said he hopes it will be expedited.

At the council’s meeting last week, City Solicitor Jim Kennedy said it’d be okay for the city to take the rare step to back the joint petition “due to the extreme, unique nature” of the situation the petitioners find themselves in, forced to adapt to a new heat source as soon as 10 months after the announcement that Concord Steam plans to close.

Mayor Jim Bouley said downtown building owners would be forced to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that they couldn’t have anticipated before next winter.

He told Kennedy: “When you go to the PUC, I expect you to get up on the table, slam your feet into the table, do whatever you need to do to represent the city of Concord and the taxpayers here, because we are getting run over by this situation.”

Pending approval by the PUC, Concord Steam plans to shut down and sell its customer base to Liberty Utilities for $1.9 million.

Under the petition, Liberty Utilities would also be allowed to create a $1 million regulatory asset to help steam customers, the balance of which the gas company can recover through its distribution rates.

In spite of that added cost to Liberty Utilities, an analysis of the company’s finances over the next decade “shows that the combined payment of $2.9 million still results in a significant net benefit over 10 years to all Liberty customers,” according to the petition.

The petition says that the $1 million fund will help ensure that the customer base Liberty Utilities is buying can actually afford to switch to natural gas. Liberty Utilities and its ratepayers only benefit from the deal if the former steam customers start buying natural gas, which will require a significant investment for building owners.

“To date, it’s only a customer list and some easements. It’s not actually helping people hook up,” Feltes told the city council.

The cost of steam this winter may also increase by 19 percent under another settlement the PUC is considering. For the South Congregational Church, which sent a letter to the PUC on Oct. 5, that increase would represent an expense of roughly $5,000 even before the upcoming cost of converting to natural gas.

The unbudgeted rate increase “coupled with the costs of conversion will be crippling,” wrote Church Council President William Delker.

“Needless to say, this information came as shock to our congregation. We had just been through a long budget process two months earlier and barely passed a budget that already anticipates a $7,300 deficit due to revenue decreases,” he wrote.

South Church is one of 13 downtown entities that co-signed the petition, many of which are nonprofits.

“These are organizations and businesses that are vital not only to the local economy, but to the Capital corridor’s tourism and overall economy,” the petition states. “Some of these organizations help serve low-income people and families as well as persons with disabilities. The Fund will help minimize, albeit not eliminate, the adverse impact on these organizations and businesses, as well as the people they serve.”

Speaking with the city councilors, Feltes said he’s unsure what will ultimately come of the petition.

“It’s just like any other case at the Public Utilities Commission, but I think it’s important that we raise these issues and press this matter,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have a seat at the table and you don’t raise any issues, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Main Street project

Construction crews are beginning to wrap up on South Main Street.

The fresh pavement at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Main Street was striped Friday.

Accent uplighting will be installed this week at the North Main Street clock tower, the metal sculpture at the entrance of Eagle Square and the war memorial at City Plaza, according to a press release from the Main Street Project.

A concrete crew will also put the finishing touches on a few segments of South Main Street and Theatre Street.

There will still be workers on South Main Street, however, as utilities and private contractors make their connections to buildings.

They’ll be splicing and pulling thousands of feet of cables underground and hauling away the old telephone poles.

This activity will continue until the Nov. 10 completion date.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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