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Brownton Established Natural Gas System

March 25, 2014

Brownton Established Natural Gas System

By John Rodeberg, SEH

The City of Brownton originally proposed to establish a municipal natural gas utility and construct a natural gas system in 2002 when the Hutchinson Utilities Commission (HUC) constructed a trunk transmission line from Trimont to Hutchinson, which passed about 5 miles west of the community.

The city already ran a successful municipal electric utility, and a previous study noted the feasibility of establishing the municipal natural gas utility in the City of Brownton. However, the effort was concluded in 2004 when the vote to proceed with development of the municipal gas system and related funding were not approved at the required election. 

Although the establishment of the utility was determined to be beneficial to the community, many in the community were concerned about the total cost of the project and the volatility of natural gas prices. Despite the frustrations of city elected officials and staff, they remained determined to reconsider establishing a municipal natural gas utility in the future.

The project was again considered in 2012 after construction of a natural gas transmission line from the Hutchinson Utility pipeline near Stewart to the new United Farmer’s Cooperative (UFC) grain facility constructed on the edge of the city in the northwest corner of TH 15 and the TC&W railroad.

Based on the potential significant reduction in the capital construction costs combined with the stability of natural gas prices, it was determined by the City Council that further review was needed. The city discussed opportunities and alternatives with both UFC and the HUC.

After reviewing alternatives and options, the city chose to consider again pursuing the establishment of a municipal gas utility, based partially on the strong recommendation from HUC.

The city engaged SEH to review the alternatives and options, and confirm whether or not the establishment of a municipal natural gas utility should again be pursued. SEH partnered with USDI and Dave Berg Consulting to complete the review and pre-design of the system.

Based on this review, it was recommended that the City of Brownton pursue establishment of a natural gas utility based on the following reasons:

  1. A natural gas system could pay for itself from the cash flow generated.
  2. Profits will be returned to the city.
  3. Heating costs will be reduced for users.
  4. Storage tanks or routine service from a dealer is not required.
  5. Establishment of the natural gas utility allows for local control of the system.
  6. The financial risk is low over the long-term.
  7. The city already owns and operates a successful electric utility.
  8. A natural gas system is an important economic development tool for attracting developers and industries to the city.

A plan was developed that included an extensive public education campaign to make sure that the public had clear and detailed information about the benefits of having a Municipal Natural Gas System. Several flyers were developed and distributed, as well as several well-advertised public meetings that outlined in detail the expected cost savings, and safety and operational benefits, of a natural gas system. (See video below.)

Understanding that many city residents were concerned about the up-front costs of conversion, they also brought in The Center for Energy and the Environment of Minneapolis as a resource for private property owners to obtain loans and grants related to energy savings. The programs they operate covered energy savings related to efficient lighting systems, energy efficient appliances, window replacement, added insulation, and other items.

Meetings were also held with local HVAC contractors to make sure that they knew the details of the proposed system so they could provide a consistent picture to the public of how the conversion process would work, and also knew of the time schedule so that they could coordinate their conversion work and reduce their cost by being more efficient.

Results and successes:

  1. Despite failing to pass the required vote in 2004, the voters approved establishing the municipal natural gas utility with over 97 percent voting in favor.
  2. The city greatly exceeded its target of 66 percent of property owners hooking up to natural gas in the first year.
  3. The construction of the system was virtually complaint free. Ninety percent of the underground work was completed with trenchless technologies such as boring, dramatically reducing damage to yards and infrastructure.
  4. The gas line constructed by the city crossed two railroad tracks, a state highway, two county roads, two township boundaries, a lake, and a river. Extensive regulatory requirements and permits were obtained in a relatively short period in order to keep the project on schedule.
  5. The project was completed well ahead of schedule and well under the original budget.
  6. The city negotiated five agreements with UFC and HUC for the transmission of natural gas over two different lines, construction of a border station on UFC property, operations and maintenance of the system, and the purchasing of natural gas.
  7. The Municipal Natural Gas was operational prior to start of the heating season. Residents are saving 25-40 percent over the cost of liquid propane (LP) gas, which also spiked in cost and was in limited supply for large portions of the 2013-2014 heating season.
  8. The team worked together to establish a process to televise virtually all sanitary sewer services, expanding upon the requirement to televise services within specific distances of natural gas installations. The lines were also located by GPS as part of the same process, allowing the city and SEH to develop an extensive database of sewer locations and conditions for an upcoming sanitary sewer rehabilitation project, at a dramatically reduced cost.

The city and SEH utilized a close partnership of a very diverse group of professionals to create a team that was greater than its individual parts. Thanks go out to HUC, the Center for Energy and the Environment, UFC, Dave Berg Consulting, USDI, and Michels Pipeline for their involvement and support. 

For more information about this project, please contact John Rodeberg, PE, SEH, at jrodeberg@sehinc.com.

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