After a series of fires and explosions on Sept. 13 in communities in the Merrimack Valley, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts said it would pay for conversions to other fuels for customers that lost natural gas service and wanted to switch. The number of Columbia Gas customers that have opted to switch is unclear, Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association, said in an Oct. 10 phone interview.
“I don’t know exactly how many have taken place, but some certainly have,” Ferrante said. “Many of our member companies are fully engaged up there. A number of companies are actively pursuing conversions,” Ferrante said.
“There are some impediments to the process,” he noted. Columbia Gas offered to pay what it called “reasonable costs to convert” customers from natural gas to heating oil or electric heating, “but the problem is work force,” Ferrante said. “Our technicians can’t deal with gas appliances or piping even if there’s no gas running through it. You have to be a licensed gasfitter.”
Some fuel oil dealers have been seeking “plumbers—gasfitters–to help remove old systems, and that’s been a challenge because there are just limited numbers of those folks for that area,” Ferrante said. The tradesmen are unionized, Ferrante added, and heating oil companies are not “first in line” when competing against other employers.
MEMA and the American Energy Coalition were readying radio campaigns to promote heating oil, Ferrante said. The radio campaigns were scheduled to begin on Oct. 15, he said. “That might initiate some additional conversions,” he said.
The gas-fueled fires and explosions in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover killed one person, injured 25 others and displaced thousands, the Associated Press and other news organizations reported. Thousands of Merrimack Valley residents were left without natural gas to heat their homes. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has pledged to restore service by Nov. 19.—Stephen Bennett