Game changer for Long Island gas customers

By Domenick Graziani

East-Hills-SHeldPhoto-7-ongAn innovative gas expansion project is paving the way for more residents and businesses on Long Island to convert from oil to gas heat. Building off the company’s neighborhood expansion model that was first used in upstate New York and Rhode Island, the East Hills project is the largest expansion ever under the program’s umbrella. In total, 80,000 feet of new gas main – more than 15 miles – was in the ground by Memorial Day, eventually serving more than 1,000 customers.

“This is the culmination of more than two years of effort on the part of many different people – both inside and outside the company,” says Priya Dasani, Senior Analyst, Gas Sales Support and East Hills project lead. “For those Long Islanders looking to convert to gas heat but do not have gas nearby or find it cost prohibitive, the East Hills model could be a win for them and National Grid.”

Because of its demographics, Long Island is one of the most attractive areas in the country for natural gas growth, as its more than 570,000 gas customers represent only about half of the potential gas heating customers on Long Island.

An alternative to the ‘100-foot rule’

EastHills1-SHeldPhoto-ongUnder the current tariff, National Grid must provide customers who want gas heat with up to 100 feet of gas main in the street for free. That’s contingent, of course, on the availability of gas in the neighborhood. If the line extends beyond 100 feet, the customer has to pay for those costs. Many who fall in this category can’t justify the extra investment unless enough neighbors sign up to lessen the costs.

This scenario often leaves customers and the company frustrated. And this was the story playing out in East Hills. A large segment of the community wanted gas, but there weren’t enough residents on board to justify the costs of laying the needed infrastructure. To meet the needs of these potential customers, we filed a plan with the New York State Public Service Commission (NYSPSC) based on the upstate New York and Rhode Island Neighborhood Expansion program, only bigger. The NYSPSC saw the merit to customers and formally approved the program for all of Long Island in December of 2014.

Essentially, the program gives National Grid the opportunity to place pipe in the ground based on a lower commitment of customers. For instance, under the 100-foot rule, there may be 20 homes along a 1,000 foot stretch; to go forward with the project under the 100-foot rule, you would have to sign up more than half of them. With Neighborhood Expansion, we can proceed with a lower number of commitments. With the infrastructure in place, the hope is to convert many more homes along the route to gas heat in the future.

“It’s all about propensity and density,” says Jim Madsen, Manager of Gas Sales Support. “The propensity for a customer to convert. And the density of the number of homes on board to convert within the right distance. A project like this doesn’t happen overnight, but this is the basis for a good result.”

The team needed 320 customer commitments before the project could go forward. It took eight months of grass roots efforts, including large community meetings and numerous mailings, to get to this total. Once that threshold was reached, the job was approved in August 2015, designed during the fall and ground broken in January 2016.

EastHillsPressConference_Ken-Daly-ongWorking together

The success in East Hills came about through many people and organizations working together over a sustained period. It took the leadership of State Senator Jack Martins, buy-in with the Village of East Hills, civic leaders, East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz, the NYSPSC and many departments at National Grid, including Gas Sales and Marketing, Customer Fulfillment, Gas Construction and Government Relations, to make it a reality.

During the past five-plus months of construction, almost all of the new gas main was installed through horizontal directional drilling in the grass strip between the homes and the curb line. This greatly reduced the amount of roadway openings, which minimized paving costs and increased customer satisfaction. Another innovative piece of the project was appointing Scott Held, Engineer, Gas Construction, as the embedded construction liaison for the duration of the job. He has become the face of National Grid in the community, answering questions, ensuring safety and compliance, and overall success.

“The community response has been terrific,” says Scott, who works out of a company trailer right in the village. “They know to come to me to get answers to their questions.”

All services to the 320 customers expect to be in place by July. East Hills will ultimately see less truck traffic from fuel deliveries and less pollution due to burning natural gas instead of heating oil. Customers could also see more money in their pockets as natural gas commodity prices continue to enjoy a price advantage over heating oil. Team members have already met with several other Long Island communities to see if the benefits found in East Hills can be brought to them.

The Neighborhood Expansion Program is also a finalist for this year’s Chairman’s Awards.

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