With Transition to Natural Gas Comes Questions in Climate-Conscious Keene

Aug 9, 2017

Credit NHPR Staff

Protesters sat in the black plastic chairs of the Keene City Council chambers in June, hand-lettered signs at their feet. At issue at the meeting was a proposal by Liberty Utilities.

The company runs a plant that pumps a propane-air mixture direct by pipe to businesses and residents downtown, as well as to some big box stores in a shopping center about a 10-minute drive away. Eventually, the company wants to switch that whole system over to natural gas. But at the meeting, it was just looking for approval to switch the big box stores over this fall.  

Just before the vote, City Councilor Terry Clark urged his colleagues to turn it down. For Clark and others, it’s a simple argument: given the reality of climate change today, leaders need to put their foot down against any new investment in fossil fuels.

“If we’re not going to start doing it now, when are we going to start doing it?” he said. “They’re saying stop-gap. … Well, you know, if they invest enough money to build a brand new plant, that’s going to last 20, 30, or 40 years.”

In the end, Liberty won the approval it needed. The vote will not herald a major change in terms of the city’s overall energy use, but it comes at a time when some residents are adamant that municipal leaders take a stand on climate change. And cities across the state are looking at how to best reduce their greenhouse gas footprint while balancing short-term, practical decisions that may involve fossil fuels.

“Municipalities have to grapple with their long-term goals in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their day-to-day operations, in which they need to ensure that their community actually continues to have energy,” said Cameron Wake, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has worked with communities across the region, including Keene, on sustainability and planning around climate change.

By many metrics, Keene is a leader when it comes to sustainability. For one, the city has been tracking its greenhouse gas footprint for some time, one of the most important steps, Wake said.

There’s a bucket of things that cities and towns have direct control over in terms of their greenhouse gas footprint, Wake said. Many of these things Keene has already taken on.

The city’s landfill and water treatment plant now run completely off the grid. There are solar panels on city hall. In fact, soon after allowing Liberty’s proposal to go forward, the City Council moved to declare Keene’s commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord.

But what can be tougher is working with residents and business owners to reduce their private footprint, educating them on renewable alternatives so they choose to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint independently.

In this particular debate in Keene, it’s also important to go back a couple of years. That’s when blowers at Liberty Utilities’ plant that mix the propane with air stopped working, and the wrong concentration of gas went out to customers.

It was a major emergency, with more than 60 fire and EMS departments responding. A handful of people ended up in the hospital.

According to Liberty Utilities, the plant is now safe, but propane-air is simply an outdated system. Natural gas will be more modern and reliable, said John Shore, a spokesman with the company. And, in the end, he said, customers still have control over the energy they use.

“We’re providing people a choice,” he said. “We’re not requiring people to use the service that we’re offering, but we’re giving people a choice. And I think it’s important to have choices.”

Construction is underway at Liberty Utilities new site, and the company hopes to have the operation serving local businesses early this fall.