Knocking on his wooden table with both hands, First Selectman Bill Brennan told The Bulletin on Tuesday morning the Wilton town government is very close to an official agreement with Yankee Gas regarding a planned natural gas main expansion program in the River Road area. 

Both Mr. Brennan, and Mitch Gross, spokesperson for the Yankee Gas company, said this week they plan to “break ground” on the new gas lines by spring of 2014, at the latest. At the Monday, Aug. 19 Board of Selectmen meeting, Mr. Brennan said an official agreement could be expected at the end of November.

“A lot of other communities are lined up for natural gas,” Mr. Brennan said at the Monday meeting. “This is a very exciting program for Wilton.”

As per the agreement, Wilton will give Yankee Gas permission to construct nearly 3.1 miles of natural gas main below town roads. In exchange, Wilton will agree to convert the majority of its major municipal buildings to be heated by natural gas. These buildings include Wilton High School, the Comstock Community Center, and Middlebrook School, among others.

“When you add up all of those buildings,” Mr. Brennan said, “it gives Yankee Gas enough potential sales to warrant an investment into the area. Residential natural gas is not the objective.”

After the transition of these buildings to natural gas, Mr. Brennan said the town can expect to see energy costs drop by $400,000 to $500,000 per year. When you discount the installation and renovation costs associated with switching to natural gas, oil is approximately 50% more expensive to use, he said.

“Ready to move forward”

A long-time businessman, Mr. Brennan said he feels Yankee Gas is as excited to move ahead with the project as he is.

“We’ve got an active program here,” he said on Tuesday. “The last meeting was very important, and it was made very clear that we are moving forward. All indications say ‘we are going to do this.’”

Though the road to the upcoming agreement has been long and varied, Mr. Gross said the natural gas expansion program in Wilton will be a great example to other towns in the state that want to lower their community’s energy costs.

“There were some bumps along the road, but things have worked out,” Mr. Gross said. “People are really looking forward to seeing this thing come to fruition. It’s a great opportunity for residents and businesses. Our phones are very busy from people all over the state saying: ‘What does it take to switch over?’ Wilton is going to be the first.”

Mr. Brennan said political leaders in the state are taking notice of Wilton’s plan.

“The governor is aware of the program here,” he said. “I’ve personally spoken to him about it. This has the chance to be an early success story. The governor will be able to one day point to Wilton as a success.”

Dan Esty, head of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has also taken notice of the program, Mr. Brennan said.

In order to make municipal buildings able to use natural gas, the town must convert or replace aging oil-burning boilers with newer equipment. With many of the town’s municipal boilers already 40 years old, Mr. Brennan said the timing of this project is very good.

“Many of the boilers are 40 years old, so they had to be replaced anyway. The first step is signing an installation agreement with Yankee Gas so we can begin the boiler renovation,” he said.

With two years of negotiations already behind the program, Mr. Brennan said the upcoming agreement represents the achievement of a significant personal goal.

“Years ago, we started recognizing the economic value of expanding natural gas into town. It will provide significant long-term savings for the town, and provide us with cleaner energy. We’ve got the ability to get natural gas where we couldn’t get it before, and people are starting to realize we have a 100-year supply.”

Cleaner energy

Cleaner energy, Mr. Gross said, is a big advantage of switching to a natural gas-burning system in downtown Wilton.

With the natural gas plan, there will be a “reduction in CO2 and total emissions from the town,” he said, “and a reduction in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions. It is cleaner burning than traditional sources.”

Not all signs identify natural gas as a truly clean, or renewable energy source, however. John Calandrelli, a staffer with the Sierra Club of Connecticut, said that while natural gas is cleaner than oil, it is imperative to remember it is still a pollutant.

“Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Though it is cleaner than oil and coal, it’s still a climate changer, and when you’re doing fracking [to extract natural gas in the United States], you destroy a heck of a lot of the earth.”

Fracking is a controversial chemical and mechanical process by which shale depsoits are fractured to increase the output of a natural gas well.

Mr. Calandrelli also said the Sierra Club does not believe natural gas reserves are as vast as some financial estimates indicate. This discrepancy could lead to volatility in the natural gas market in the near future.

“The fact that we are into fracking in many parts of the country tells you that easy-to-get-at, ‘low-hanging fruit’ natural gas reserves are all gone,” he said. We don’t like the new plan to put in over 900 miles of natural gas line. It still represents the same mindset we’ve had for the past 60 years. In 10 years — who knows what natural gas cost will be?”

Mr. Brennan said issues like the ones presented by the Sierra Club need to be inspected closely.

“I am in favor of protecting the environment. Those issues are very important to raise,” he said. “But, I’ve done my research, and the technology is evolving rapidly in this area. Raising these concerns helps companies create solutions to make the technology safer. Natural gas is as safe as possible, those concerns are not being ignored.”

Mr. Brennan also maintained natural gas will be a significant, long-term source of energy for Connecticut.

A community outreach program on the plan, Mr. Gross said, will clearly address any concerns over safety and environmental effects any citizens may have. When it is held, the Yankee Gas company will make a presentation on the technology at a public place to help the entire community understand the program.

Statewide economic gain

Statewide, the economic gains from natural gas expansion will be felt throughout the economy, Mr. Brennan and Mr. Gross said. Cheaper energy will not be the only perk of switching to the new system.

“We are estimating that 10 years down the road across Connecticut, the benefits of this expansion plan will total around $436 million per year injected into the economy,” Mr. Gross said in terms of increased labor and material demand, and other economic benefits.

Mr. Brennan reiterated the theory that natural gas expansion will be a true economic stimulus to the state.

“When you start expanding natural gas statewide, you have to hire installation crews, for example,” he said. “Pipe must be sold, sand must be purchased. There will be additional revenue leading to additional commercial activity.”

Disagreeing with the extent of economic benefits associated with natural gas expansion, Mr. Calandrelli said viewing natural gas expansion in terms of traditional cost/benefit boundaries provided a very narrow window to the truth.

“Our current, normal idea of cost/benefit doesn’t cover all of the benefits or costs,” he said. “If you really added in the cost of fossil fuels — excess health care or dirty environments — it’d be different. If we don’t add the worth of the planet to the cost/benefit analysis, it becomes a very narrow picture of benefit.”