BERLIN — The push to extend a natural gas pipeline into northern Worcester moved closer to fruition recently as the main transmission line crossed the Maryland-Delaware state line, and service could be soon available to residences and businesses in certain areas of the county.
Chesapeake Utilities, the parent company of Eastern Shore Natural Gas, in the last week moved forward with its planned expansion into northern Worcester County. For several years, the company has pushed south loosely along Route 113, extending natural gas service to rural communities throughout Sussex County.
Ultimately, the main transmission line will follow along Route 113 in northern Worcester County and connect to a southern terminus near Friendship Rd. on the north side of Route 50 across from Stephen Decatur High School. When the main trunk line is completed, Eastern Shore Natural Gas will begin exploring extensions into communities in the county where there is a desire and demand for a transition to natural gas.
With the main line crossing into Worcester last week, some communities are already gearing up for a possible transition. At a public hearing on a separate issue this week, Bishopville resident Stephanie Dicken asked her neighbors to complete a survey outlining the community’s desire for natural gas service.
“It might be beneficial to all of us,” she said. “It’s cleaner and a lot cheaper.”
Chesapeake Utilities representative Greg Denston said this week the company put together the survey to determine interest in Bishopville at the request of Dicken and some homeowners in the community.
“They asked for an inquiry to gauge interest in Bishopville,” he said. “Traditionally, there has to be a need and we have to look at a lot of economic issues. Typically, there has to be a concentration of homeowners or businesses that want it to make the numbers work.”
Meanwhile, the main transmission line continues to chug south along Route 113 in northern Worcester to its ultimate destination.
“We’re making good progress,” said Chesapeake Utilities Senior Vice President and Eastern Shore Natural Gas President Stephen Thompson this week. “We’re a little behind where we thought we’d be, but we’ve moved into Worcester County and we’re plugging along.”
Where natural gas lines branch out from the main line has not been determined, but several communities in Worcester have expressed a desire to connect, according to Thompson.
“There’s no definitive plan at this point,” he said. “We hope to have the main transmission line completed by the end of this month and after that, a lot of different factors will dictate where we branch out.”
The key to expediting the distribution will be the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approval of a deal made earlier this summer in which Chesapeake Utilities acquired Eastern Shore Gas’s propane distribution infrastructure. Readily compatible for a changeover to natural gas distribution, Eastern Shore Gas adds over 11,000 potential new customers for Chesapeake Utilities and nearly doubles the roughly 13,000 natural gas customers the company already serves in Maryland.
“In June, we struck a deal to acquire the propane distribution assets of Eastern Shore Gas, but we haven’t completed the transaction,” said Thompson. “We’ve made our filing with the PSC and we’re expecting approval by the end of this calendar year. If and when that happens, we’ll be able to start looking at areas in which to expand.”
The crossing of the main transmission line into Worcester is largely symbolic of the progress. Throughout the summer, Chesapeake Utilities has been working with the State Highway Administration (SHA) on smaller projects along the route. In addition, Chesapeake Utilities has been working on the southern terminus for the main transmission line heading north.
“Essentially, we’ve been working both ends toward the middle,” said Thompson. “Seasonal factors have dictated somewhat where we can work, but we’re moving quickly toward completing the main transmission line.”
Once Chesapeake Utilities completes the main transmission line, the distribution picture will become clearer. Demographics, economics and logistics will likely determine where distribution lines are extended.
“There are a lot of factors involved,” said Thompson. “There has to be a desire and a need, first and foremost, and then the economics have to work. We’d like to expand everywhere there is a desire and a demand, but the numbers have to work. We wouldn’t necessarily run a line to serve a handful of homes, for example.”
The PSC approval of the transaction with Eastern Shore Gas could make some of those decisions easier. Eastern Shore Gas already has the propane distribution infrastructure in the ground, which could be readily converted to distribute natural gas.
“That could be a trigger for the whole system,” said Thompson. “Eastern Shore Gas already serves large communities in Worcester like Berlin, Ocean City and Ocean Pines, for example.”