The state Department of Public Utilities has approved a long-term supply plan for Berkshire Gas Co. without requiring the company to end its 3-year-old moratorium on new and expanded service in Franklin and Hampshire counties.
While the DPU says it “acknowledges that there is an urgent need to end the moratorium as soon as practicable,” it partially or entirely rejects recommendations by the towns of Deerfield and Montague, which formally intervened in the company’s filing.
“On behalf of our residents and businesses, we are disappointed, though not surprised, by the … (DPU’s) substantive agreement … that will allow the moratorium on new or expanded service throughout the Pioneer Valley to continue for an indefinite period of time,” the towns said in a joint statement.
“The DPU’s order fails to incentivize Berkshire to work harder to support our goals as Massachusetts Green Communities, which are to boost economic development while at the same time reducing overall consumption of gas in order to continue putting the brakes on climate change.”
The moratorium affects Amherst, Hadley and Hatfield in Hampshire County. Besides Deerfield and Montague, Franklin County towns affected are Whately, Sunderland and Greenfield.
In its decision, the DPU rejected testimony on behalf of Deerfield and Montague that a combination of demand-reduction solutions, internal system changes and improvements to existing gas infrastructure could eliminate need for the moratorium as early as the coming heating season this fall.
While regulators required the company to report every six months on its progress toward finding a long-term supply solution, state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said, “We wish it was every 30 days.”
One of the towns’ recommendations that was incorporated into the decision included the requirement that separate demand forecasts and supply plans be included for the company’s Berkshire and Pioneer Valley divisions in the future.
The recommendation also encouraged the company to work with its “dual fuel” customers to see if they would make arrangements to shift fuels at time of winter peak demand to free up resources for other customers to use.
Rosenberg, who has been meeting with Berkshire Gas officials together with other area legislators, said the DPU “pushed through a little bit, but not as much as we wanted.”
“We take little heart in what the DPU did, but we wish it had been more directed,” Rosenberg said, adding that legislators will continue to “keep the pressure on” for the company to pursue all options to ending the moratorium.
Hadley Select Board Chairwoman Molly Keegan said she had hoped the DPU “would step in in some way,” but Tuesday’s news meant the moratorium would “continue to be quite painful for residents and businesses.”
She said Route 9 is a particularly attractive corridor for business, but the moratorium has stymied growth — having a direct impact on property tax, hotel tax and meal tax collections.
An alternative for new or growing businesses would be installing their own propane systems, but Keegan said that is cost-prohibitive for many.
In Amherst, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that once a business installs its own propane infrastructure, it likely would never go on-line with the gas company.
“Once you invest in that kind of infrastructure in your building, you’re not going to go back to natural gas,” he said, mentioning the construction of Olympia Village, which opened last fall and uses its own propane systems.
He added that restaurants are having trouble expanding, and the moratorium has even affected Wildwood Elementary School as it plans to replace the school’s boiler system.
“This hardship will just continue,” he said.
Ariel Elan, a member of Montague’s Energy Committee, said the towns had recommended that Berkshire Gas be required to work with large customers that could switch to alternative fuels, such as Amherst College.
That Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. recently completed an “open season” soliciting potential customers for an undetermined possible project somewhere in the region is also looming in the background as Berkshire Gas weighs two solutions for ending the moratorium — a large liquefied natural gas storage facility somewhere in Franklin County and expansion of its distribution main between Greenfield and TGP’s interconnection with Berkshire’s system in Southwick.
“The fact that this thing is hovering in the air is extremely relevant,” said Elan, who was active in opposing TGP’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline through eight Franklin County towns before it was scrapped last year.
Berkshire Gas Co. spokesman Chris Farrell confirmed that the company participated in TGP’s Open Season “to meet its gas resource needs” in Berkshire County.
He said both of the company’s options to augment supply in the Pioneer Valley “have been the subject of extensive analysis and evaluation” and that the company plans to provide the DPU with an update on its progress toward a long-term solution within six months.
Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said the current moratorium “certainly puts our residents and businesses at a great economic disadvantage. We’re told there’s a very long waiting list” for new and expanded gas service.
Kulik said he was disappointed that the DPU, in its decision, failed to look at ordering any short-term solutions to the moratorium. The suggested solutions “are a long ways away” because of siting and regulatory approval required, he said. “It could be years.”
He added, legislators have also asked Berkshire Gas specifically whether the company expects TGP’s most recent interest in this region to be seen as a solution, but they have been told, “It means absolutely nothing; it’s apples and oranges,” in Kulik’s words.
Gazette staff writer Jack Suntrup contributed to this report.