Turning on the gas

KEARSARGE – For the first time, Keweenaw County has natural gas service.

A special ceremony was held Wednesday morning near the ballfield in Kearsarge for SEMCO Energy Gas Company to officially turn the valve to pressurize a natural gas main for the county. In the coming months, more than 300 residents and municipalities will be connected to the system.

“It’s a tremendous boost for Keweenaw County getting natural gas service,” Keweenaw County Commissioner Del Rajala said in a Daily Mining Gazette interview, after a group photo opportunity at a site a couple miles farther north on U.S. 41. “It’s going to add to the property values, it’s certainly going to save tons of money for the county itself. … It’s a win-win for everybody.”

But the project was on shaky footing just a few months ago.

Initially, more than 350 people expressed interest in getting natural gas to Keweenaw County at a pair of meetings last fall in Ahmeek and Allouez, but as the deadline approached to officially sign up, only 84 people had sent in the necessary documents and a $200 commitment check. Rajala contacted as many people as he could during a final push, getting the number close to 300. SEMCO committed to the project at that point, and about 330 of the 700 potential customers are on board now.

“It’s real encouraging to see the local support,” SEMCO President Jim Larsen said in a DMG interview. “… In general, most of the communities served with natural gas have been served for 50 years or more. To find communities that haven’t ever been served is rare.”

While SEMCO provides natural gas to almost 300,000 customers throughout the state, spending $3 million to add more than 300 customers in Keweenaw County is the largest new construction project the company has undertaken in at least 10 years, according to Larsen.

“What’s really making this a reality is the price of natural gas has dropped so low compared to other fuels,” he said. “The economics are just so much easier.

Larsen estimated a savings of 50-75 percent off heating bills each year, while Rajala said a customer paying $350-400 a month for fuel oil will see bills reduced to $80-90.

David McCowen from The Marketing Department, who has worked with SEMCO, said natural gas is one-fourth the cost of fuel oil (used by two-thirds of Keweenaw County customers) and one-third the cost of propane.

“How would you not choose to do that?” Rajala said.

Another cost aid is Michigan is centrally located for natural gas shipments from one of three predominant regions: western Canada and North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the Gulf Coast.

While it is a substantial project, there are still several areas in the county too remote to access the 20 miles of new gas line.

The general areas north of Kearsarge getting gas for the first time are Phillipsville, the Village of Allouez, New Allouez, the Village of Ahmeek, Ahmeek Location, Mohawk, Fulton and Copper City.

Interested customers in those areas not currently signed up may still be able to connect to the system if it’s nearby by contacting SEMCO.

“We’re hopeful to be running the actual lines up to the houses over the next few weeks,” Larsen said during the ceremony, “and hopefully get everybody gassed up by winter.”