BERLIN — The flow of natural gas into Worcester County and conversion of properties to use the energy source is running smoothly several months into the project.
Interest in conversion has been extremely high amongst Berlin property owners, according to the county.
The first round of conversions began this summer at industrial facilities on Route 113 in Showell. As the conversion to natural gas branched, it began to build momentum and interest.
“We’re getting whole shopping centers,” said Bob Mitchell, director of Environmental Programs. “Right now they’ve opened the floodgates. In Berlin, we’re doing whole streets, whole shopping centers and cul-de-sacs.”
Though the transmission line work has been “challenging” at times, Mitchell said that all and all conversion has gone well without hitting any unexpected hitches. Adding natural gas lines into Worcester and the conversion of properties is being led by Sandpiper Energy, a subsidiary of Chesapeake Utilities Corporation. Mitchell told the County Commission Tuesday that he’s been impressed so far with the company’s work.
“I feel confident on the technical side that they’re much deeper than Eastern Shore [Gas],” he said. “And that’s not a slight against Eastern Shore [Gas]. It’s just a bigger company now that’s handling things.”
Right now Sandpiper is converting large sections of Berlin. Mitchell reported a bit of down time between when Sandpiper began conversions over the summer until the recent holiday season.
“There was a lull in upgrades until this past holiday season to allow for transmission line installation,” Mitchell wrote in a memo to the commission. “In the Thanksgiving to Christmas timeframe, Stephen Decatur Middle and High school conversions took place.”
The switch to natural gas has since moved down Old Ocean City Boulevard and across Route 113, encompassing the Food Lion shopping center and the Barrett Medical building. There is now another minor lull while Sandpiper waits for some specialty parts needed for the conversion of Atlantic General Hospital, Kelly Foods and the Berlin nursing home.
The focus will be on Berlin for the next few months. Once a majority of the properties in town have been able to convert the project will spread outwards.
“It is their intent to proceed along the northern part of the Town of Berlin and proceed in a circular fashion along the west side of the town, as the order of conversion work for their customer base in that locality,” Mitchell said. “Once they wrap up about 75-percent of the conversions in Berlin, they plan on embarking on upgrades in the northern part of Ocean Pines and the commercial area around Walmart. The timing of that work would probably be late in this calendar year.”
Every property that wishes to convert to natural gas will be surveyed and inspected by Sandpiper’s contractors. Customers will be charged based on rates established by the Public Service Commission whether they convert to natural gas or continue to use propane.
The cost of conversions is being spread out amongst all customers, as are the savings from the use of natural gas. Property owners will be able to convert most of their appliances to use natural gas or they can replace them, though they will have to pay the difference in cost between conversion and replacement.
Sandpiper is still determining which properties want to convert to natural gas.
“They’re about a month or two ahead of where their actual inspections are,” said Mitchell. “So they’ll go and survey a whole group of homes and businesses, find out what they need and then schedule for inspections.”