News-Miner opinion: This summer will mark a major turning point for the Interior Gas Utility, the publicly owned and operated entity whose aim is to make natural gas available in more of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The big development at long last is that the utility is now ready to begin connecting homes and businesses to the natural gas pipelines it has been laying.
Soon, new customers will be able to heat with clean-burning natural gas. And, if they choose, they can also install natural gas appliances.
It’s been a long time coming. The Borough Assembly created the Interior Gas Utility in 2012 after acquiring the necessary authority from the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole.
The IGU’s aim is simple yet complex: “provide low cost, clean burning, natural gas to the largest number of customers in the FNSB as soon as possible,” according to its website.
The utility came into existence at a time of high heating oil prices in the Fairbanks region. It was routine to hear talk of people leaving Alaska for the Lower 48 and its lower energy costs.
How bad was it? One headline on a Daily News-Miner story from that era reads, “High fuel oil prices mean strong demand for Fairbanks chainsaw shops.”
People were heading to the hills to load up on firewood.
The Council for Community and Economic Research conducted a national survey in 2012 and found Fairbanks households were paying 143% more than the typical U.S. household for utility costs in the third quarter of that year.
At that time, the local cost of heating oil had skyrocketed, averaging $4.06 per gallon for the year near the end of 2012.
People were clamoring for natural gas.
Today, however, the price of heating oil is much, much lower. The cry for that natural gas isn’t as strong.
But it’s important that the Fairbanks region has options such as natural gas, that cleanest burning of available heating fuel sources.
Here’s a big reason for that: When heating oil prices go up again, as they one day might, a number of people will turn to greater use of their wood stoves. It’s those wood stoves that contribute mightily to our long-running wintertime air quality problem. And that’s a problem that is simply going to have to get solved. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is insisting on it.
Use of wood stoves might be less likely if more of the population was on natural gas at times of high heating oil prices.
Getting people to switch to natural gas might not be easy when the price of heating fuel is low, however. There’s a cost involved for homeowners and businesses wanting to make the change. A natural gas boiler will be needed to replace one that can only operate on heating oil, and they, like all boilers, run in the thousands of dollars.
That is why it’s important that government help with the conversion. The Borough Assembly recognized that point last year when it approved a conversion assistance program that can provide up to $7,500 to switch a heating system from fuel oil to natural gas or propane.
The program should nudge people to make the change.
The Interior Gas Utility needs to attract customers to its system, which is now ready to go in North Pole and elsewhere beyond the original system laid by Fairbanks Natural Gas long ago. The more customers it has, the more it can spread out its costs.
The promise of natural gas to a wider area of the Fairbanks region has been years in the making and taken many forms. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to reach this point.
Now all that’s needed are those customers.