Over-Pressure, Under-Pressure: Utilities Under Deliver

By Tom Tubman, American Energy Coalition

One of the many marketing points used by the natural gas industry to promote their product is that it is piped into the home, so it is always there when needed for heat, hot water, cooking, etc. As the argument goes, this is superior to a “delivered fuel” that needs to be stored onsite, with the risk of a late delivery and the danger of running out, ergo, no heat or hot water.

Well, as it turns out, this marketing claim by the gas utilities continues to be proven wrong, as are most of their other claims.

For the last several years now, we have seen gas utilities in the Northeast, one by one, imposing moratoriums on new gas service connections due to pipeline capacity constraints. Berkshire Gas in Western Massachusetts was one of the first, imposing a moratorium in the towns of Greenfield, Northampton, and Easthampton. National Grid followed with a moratorium on Cape Cod and the South Shore of Boston, and there are others. Con Edison recently placed a moratorium in Westchester County, New York, and most recently Holyoke Gas & Electric in Western Massachusetts has followed suit, again citing pipeline capacity issues as the reason. So, the claim that fuel piped to the residence will always be there when needed may be a stretch.

On September 13, 2018, an “over-pressurization” accident in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover, Massachusetts left more than 8,600 Natural Gas customers without service, most for several months. More recently, an “under-pressurization” event left over 7,100 natural gas customers in Middletown and Newport, Rhode Island without service for a week or more, during a cold snap, when outdoor temperatures were in the single digits.

The Rhode Island incident began on January 21, when a single valve in Weymouth, Massachusetts, which reportedly was experiencing higher than normal flow rates due to the colder than normal weather, froze up, creating the “under-pressure” event. The valve was a component of National Grid’s gas suppliers system, but as the gas pressure began to drop in Middletown and Newport, a safety risk developed and National Grid cut off natural gas transmissions to over 7,100 customers in the affected area.

National Grid’s response was significant, especially given the extreme cold weather. When gas pressure was regained and made available to the National Grid system, they could not restore service to the affected area, because of the danger of a gas release from standing pilots that had surely been extinguished. So, the gas utility was forced to send technicians to turn off the gas supply valves to each and every gas service in the affected area. Only after that multi-day effort was completed could they restore gas supply to their system. Then, with the gas supply restored to their network, they needed to enter each and every residence and commercial property to reestablish gas supply and relight pilots. This took over a week. In the meantime, homeowners needed to find other shelter from the brutally cold weather.

National Grid has offered to pay reasonable hotel and meal expenses, and they have begun to pay claims. But that hasn’t stopped affected residents and local law firms from filing suit against the utility. At least two law suits have been filed against National Grid, Enbridge Inc. and their Algonquin Gas Transmission, LLC subsidiary, on behalf of homeowners and commercial customers affected by the outages.

So, when you hear utility claims that natural gas is piped into homes and always available, you can counter, “Not so fast!” Yes, it is sometimes available, but maybe not on the coldest or hottest days of the year, and maybe not (for long periods of time) if there is an accident by the utility that over-pressurizes or under-pressurizes the system. A delivered fuel is only a phone call away, not weeks or months!

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