"The Keene Planning Board voted unanimously Monday to approve a site plan for a temporary natural gas facility that would be installed by the end of 2017.
The plan passed, over the objections of several area residents concerned about natural gas and attracting other natural gas projects to the region.
Liberty Utilities filed the plan for the facility, which the company intends to build at 43 Production Ave., in April. Constructing it would be Liberty Utilities’ first step in converting the city’s air-propane gas system to compressed natural gas.
However, the project will go ahead only upon meeting several conditions, including securing the City Council’s approval to discontinue a portion of Production Avenue and install a turnaround for vehicles.
Liberty Utilities bought the city’s air-propane gas system and other assets from Keene-based N.H. Gas Corp. in 2014. The city’s system has 1,250 residential and commercial customers.
The temporary natural gas facility would service only customers at the Monadnock Marketplace, according to Shawn Furey, the gas construction manager for Liberty Utilities in New Hampshire, who presented the plan before the planning board Monday night.
But the company hopes to eventually install a permanent natural gas facility and convert all of its customers to natural gas.
Furey said the permanent facility could be built at the same location as the temporary site, but that the company is also looking at other locations in Keene. The 16.2-acre site where the temporary facility would be built is on a cul-de-sac at the end of Production Avenue.
“We’d like to have the design completed probably by the winter and then start permitting and construction next year,” he said of the permanent facility, after Monday’s meeting.
With a temporary facility up and running, Liberty Utilities will be able to start retiring its air-blower system, according to Mike Licata, Liberty Utilities’ director of government affairs.
In December 2015, a glitch in this system caused by a power outage led to pure propane being sent out to Keene customers, rather than the proper mixture of propane and air. Improperly mixed propane can produce carbon monoxide.
The incident spanned 15 hours and caused four people to be sent to the hospital with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. The response involved 64 fire and emergency medical services departments from New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, as well as 12 local, regional, state and private agencies.
The part of the propane-air system serving residential areas operates at a very low pressure, which is adequate for most customers and doesn’t require the air-blowers, Liberty Utilities spokesman John Shore previously told The Sentinel.
However, some commercial customers require higher pressure to meet their heating and cooking needs, which is why the air-blower system is necessary, he said.
Large businesses in the Monadnock Marketplace require that higher pressure, according to Licata.
“... Converting them (to natural gas) will allow us to retire some of the equipment at the existing propane plant. ... That will improve reliability at the existing plant,” he said, after the meeting, of phasing out the air-blower system.
Gary Spykman, chairman of the planning board, said natural gas is a “better choice” than the air-propane system, in part because it will alleviate safety concerns.
“In my mind, I think this is a safer alternative given the issues we’ve had with the air-propane mixture in the past,” he said.
After company officials presented their plan for the temporary facility, people who attended the meeting spoke out against switching the city over to a natural gas system.
Several expressed concern that Liberty Utilities’ plan would attract even larger natural gas projects, like the expansive, proposed Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline.
The pipeline, which was pitched by Kinder Morgan Inc. and its subsidiary, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, sparked protest — especially among residents along the 419-mile proposed route, which included the Cheshire County towns of Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester. The pipeline would have carried natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass.
Kinder Morgan pulled the project last April after saying it didn’t receive enough commitments from businesses to buy natural gas from the pipeline.
“If this goes through, Kinder Morgan will be right behind them,” Jeff Scott of Chesterfield said of Liberty Utilities’ plan.
Pam Clark of Westmoreland said the city of Keene should be looking to alternative sources of energy, like wind, biofuel and solar, instead of natural gas.
“It’s about time that governments and people step up to the plate and change the way they’re thinking about energy,” she said.
But John DiBernardo, who said he operated Keene’s propane-air gas facility from 1982 to 2000, approved of the plan and called converting Keene from propane-air to a natural gas system a “natural progression.” He said that many other large and small cities operate on natural gas systems.
“Natural gas is the most abundant, clean source of energy at this time.” he said. “It just never got to Keene. This is a chance to bring our system into at least the 20th century and then maybe perhaps into the 21st.”