Columbia residents' work pays in natural gas

Each autumn as the weather turns brisk, Bill Collins has the same lament.

His home in the Clemens Crossing neighborhood in west Columbia is serviced by an electric heat pump, which he considers inefficient.


He's longed for the more comfortable and economical heat provided by natural gas. But the catch for the 14-year Village of Hickory Ridge resident has been this -- as in much of Columbia, there's no natural gas line on his street.

But it appears that by next summer, Mr. Collins and about 50 of his Clemens Crossing neighbors will be able to have natural gas service.


Clemens Crossing is part of a Baltimore Gas & Electric pilot project aimed at attracting other homeowners to the new service, said Tom Baumgartner, BG&E;'s marketing representative for Howard County.

The gas line project is moving forward because Mr. Collins and fellow Clemens Crossing resident Bill Purwyn rallied neighbors to lobby BG&E; for the service.

Mr. Collins said he heard in August that Mr. Purwyn had organized a meeting with neighbors and a BG&E; representative to ask about getting access to a natural gas line that services the Hickory Ridge Village Center, at the corner of Owen Brown Road and Freetown Road.

At the meeting, Mr. Collins said he learned that he'd have to get a significant showing of interest from property owners on his street before BG&E; would consider extending the line.

So Mr. Collins, who works for a space planning firm in Washington, hit the street knocking on neighbors' doors to invite them to a meeting at his home.

So far, he estimates, about 20 percent of the residents on his street have expressed a sincere interest in a natural gas connection.

Normally, BG&E; requires 60 percent to 65 percent of customers in a service area to request natural gas service before seeking county and state Public Service Commission approvals to extend utility lines, Mr. Baumgartner said.

But the utility has decided to drop that requirement in the hope the pilot project will entice more Clemens Crossing customers to switch to natural gas. Crews are expected to begin laying the new gas lines for the three targeted streets sometime next spring, Mr. Baumgartner said.


The company also will eliminate connection charges as an incentive for new customers in Clemens Crossing, said John Miller, BG&E;'s public affairs representative for Howard, Prince Georges and Montgomery counties. Connection charges are the way utilities normally recoup their cost of new utility lines.

"The payoff for BG&E; in doing this is conservation of electricity," he said.

While the project may initially generate less than 100 new natural gas customers, the electricity saved over time from homes no longer using electricity for heat and appliances will be significant, Mr. Miller said.

And, of course, BG&E; hopes that other Clemens Crossing residents will consider switching to natural gas when they hear testimonials from neighbors. Eventually, lines could be extended to other areas of Clemens Crossing if a high percentage of residents on other streets tell the utility they would sign up for natural gas, Mr. Baumgartner said.

For now, streets scheduled to get natural gas service are Twinedew Place, Tailcoat Way and Cardinal Lane -- the street where Mr. Collins lives. BG&E; decided on those streets after a significant number of property owners said they would request connection to the gas line.

A new natural gas furnace in a three-bedroom home is 78 percent to 90 percent efficient in generating heat, BG&E; said. Such a system heating a three bedroom home averages $300 to $400 in annual heating bills.


In comparison, oil furnaces average about 70 percent efficiency and carry a $550 average heating bill for a three-bedroom home. The heating bill from a heat pump system serving the same home averages $500 annually, BG&E; estimates.

But the efficiency of heat pumps can't be easily compared to oil and natural gas systems because they generate heat by vastly different methods. Heat pumps pull ambient heat from the outside air while the others burn fossil fuels to produce heat.

While BG&E; has almost 79,000 Howard County electric customers, only 20,600 county households use natural gas, Mr. Miller said.

Homes in Clemens Crossing were among thousands built in Columbia in the 1970s when BG&E; simply wasn't laying gas lines because national energy policy and price controls inspired by the Arab oil embargo were aimed at cutting U.S. consumption of fossil fuels, Mr. Miller said.

With the deregulation of the 1980s, natural gas prices fell, making the fuel, with its comparatively higher efficiency, an appealing energy source for homes and businesses.