Better access to natural gas for eight central Pennsylvania counties took its first step at a recent kick-off meeting with SEDA-Council of Governments and its Regional Gas Utilization Initiative study partners at Union County Government Center.

From this December through next year, county officials will work with SEDA-COG to identify and prioritize potential locations in Columbia, Juniata, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder and Union counties to determine if, how and where natural gas utility services can be expanded to industries, businesses and homes.

The Regional Gas Utilization Initiative study also will identify potential funding strategies to implement outcomes, aiming to sustain and attract economic development, and reduce energy costs to residents. The study will outline possible next steps and roles for local governments and businesses to consider when planning for expanded natural gas services. Options will be explored for establishing a decision-making body that will help to support design, construction, and maintenance of these investments in infrastructure.

The final priority locations will be chosen by local stakeholders, with a target of at least one potential project per partner county. The final study report should be completed by December 2016.

Potential locations for establishment of new natural gas service will be assessed based on property and heating fuel types; heating systems; building square footages; industries with growth potential; employment; and proximity to existing natural gas distribution service areas, existing natural gas transmission pipelines, transportation corridors, and strategic transportation facilities (rail yards, interchanges).

Prioritization factors may include serving multiple clusters/property types; likelihood of customer conversions; potential development; extension cost per mile; funding options; existing pipeline capacities and conditions; suitability of virtual pipelines; positive economic impacts; and more.

This is the second phase of a successful regional initiative that began in three counties in the SEDA-COG region in 2013. SEDA-COG developed a replicable pilot Regional Gas Utilization Initiative study that identified areas for natural gas distribution line extensions in Centre, Clinton and Mifflin counties. At least one potential demonstration project in each of the three initial counties may be undertaken in the near term. For example, in Clinton County there are two potential projects that would cost about $15 million to develop, with over 600 potential new natural gas users.

Among implementation options for natural gas service, SEDA-COG is evaluating the suitability of newer technologies, such as “virtual pipelines” that can be established to provide service to “gas islands” not connected to existing distribution networks. Compressed natural gas can be delivered by truck to a decompression station located at the site of a major user, often a larger commercial business. The virtual pipeline model can serve a single user or a limited network of users connected by a small pipeline network, including residential areas. Cost savings can be achieved as compared to many other sources of energy. Additional options may include small natural-gas-to-electricity power plants and other similar technologies.

Second-phase funding includes a $50,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant.

SEDA-COG also is participating on the Governor’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force, with Regional Gas Utilization Initiative study manager Don Kiel serving as a member. Kiel is participating in the task force’s Workforce & Economic Development subgroup that will provide recommendations and best practices related to expanding access to natural gas resources throughout the state to support economic growth and development. SEDA-COG’s Regional Gas Utilization Initiative study and the task force’s recommendations will complement and inform each other, Kiel said.

While northern and western Pennsylvania produce a tremendous amount of natural gas, access to this resource in the central part of the state is problematic mainly because of an undeveloped distribution system. Less than 30 percent of the homes in the project’s eight-county service area are heated with natural gas. Expanding access to the natural gas supply network offers significant economic development opportunities for the region and can create and retain jobs.