In the wake of a December gas scare that triggered a massive emergency response and sent some people to the hospital, Liberty Utilities recently sent a letter to Keene customers seeking to reassure them and referencing its plans to switch to natural gas. “When Liberty Utilities bought the Keene facility from NH Gas in January 2015, it was always our plan to switch from propane-air to natural gas,” says the letter, which also references a second, smaller incident in Keene last month. “Natural gas will be more reliable and less expensive than propane.”Matt Nanci can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MNanciKS.
But before converting, the company must first get approval from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission. The company expects to file that request within the next two months, according to John Shore, a spokesman for Liberty Utilities.
“Once approved, we will promptly work towards converting to natural gas,” Liberty Utilities’ March 21 letter says. “Until then, rest assured that we will continue to operate the facility safely.”
Two power outages in recent months at Liberty Utilities’ production facility on Emerald Street in Keene led to an imbalance in the propane-air mixture sent to city customers. The improper mixture allows carbon monoxide to form.
The incident on Dec. 19 was much more severe and dangerous than the February one, lasting 15 hours, involving 64 fire and emergency medical services departments from New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, and 12 local, regional, state and private agencies. It also sent four people to the hospital with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The outages were brief fluctuations in power, lasting just a few seconds, which didn’t give enough time for the company’s generators to kick in, leading to a problem with the mixture of air into the city’s gas supply, according to Shore.
In December, a fault in the control system led to a failure of the air blowers that create the propane-air mixture to adjust to the power fluctuation like they were supposed to, Shore said.
That glitch in the control system has since been fixed and worked properly in the February incident, contributing to its quick resolution, according to Shore.
Since Dec. 19, Liberty Utilities began staffing the facility 24/7, which is what Shore credits for preventing the latest gas issue in February from escalating.
The switch to natural gas won’t require significant changes in equipment at Liberty Utilities’ Keene distribution center, which mixes air and propane, Shore said.
Most of the work will involve modifications to each customer’s appliances, but Shore said those changes will be simple.
“The appliances that are currently connected to the system … they are all modified (from using natural gas) to run on this propane-air mixture that we have now,” he said.
Liberty Utilities serves about 1,200 customers in the city, according to Shore. By switching to natural gas, he said, the company hopes to add more residential and commercial customers in Keene.
The company already has 90,000 natural gas customers in the Granite State in a straight line from Nashua to Laconia, Shore said. It also provides electricity to 44,000 customers around Salem, Hanover, Lebanon, Charlestown, Walpole and Alstead.
Liberty Utilities is looking into building a lateral off the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which would be used to supply Keene with natural gas, but the conversion is planned regardless, Shore said.
If the pipeline is not built, Liberty Utilities has said it would transport natural gas to Keene from elsewhere.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, is proposing the 419-mile interstate pipeline to carry cheap, fracked natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass. It’s proposed to travel through 18 communities in southern New Hampshire, including the Cheshire County towns of Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester.
Shore said he didn’t know specifically when the conversion would happen, but said it would be during a low-demand time; the switch, for example, wouldn’t occur during winter, when customers rely on service to heat their homes.
Of the recent incidents in Keene, Shore said, “Hopefully it will accelerate the process (to switch to natural gas). ... The issues that occurred in the past in December and in February, they wouldn’t be issues with natural gas.”
In the meantime, he said the additional measures put in place after the gas scare in December will prevent an incident like that from happening again.
“We’re very confident that the system is safe and operating the way it should,” he said.
Keene Fire Chief Mark F. Howard agreed, saying Liberty Utilities’ handling of the Feb. 21 incident was an example of the effectiveness of the changes the company made.
That day, another brief power outage at the company’s facility caused one of the air blowers in the facility to shut down, creating an improper mixture of air into the propane gas supply.
Crews were able to get the blower working properly again within seven minutes, according to Shore.
The Keene Fire Department checked different locations across the city where Liberty Utilities customers are served, but did not find any problems.
The incident was declared under control more than two hours after Liberty Utilities reported the improper mixture of air.
“It was really uneventful,” Howard said.
The day after the December incident, the N.H. Public Utilities Commission opened an investigation into what happened. The final report of the commission’s staff about the event is expected to be released March 31, Shore said.