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Got gas? Esko will soon

Workers prepare a section of natural gas main to be installed along a road in Esko as part of Minnesota Energy Resources’ expansion of service to the community. Esko is one of two areas the utility is expanding service to this year. Special to the Pine Journal1 / 2
Minnesota Energy Resources is expanding its natural gas distribution system to provide service to Esko residents in time for the upcoming winter heating season. About 750 customers will be eligible to receive natural gas service from the utility. Special to the Pine Journal2 / 2

It's been more than 20 years since Minnesota Energy Resources Corporation (MERC) piped a new town for natural gas, and Esko is one of two new cities getting access this summer.

"It's not easy to extend natural gas systems to new towns," said Pam Sarvela, external affairs manager for MERC. "So it's been more than two decades since we truly piped a new town and we are really excited."

So is Esko Schools Superintendent Aaron Fischer.

Although he didn't have an exact dollar figure, the superintendent said the district stands to save a "substantial" amount of money as it switches from old dual-fuel boilers that burn propane or fuel oil to new boilers that use natural gas with propane as a back-up. The district is also switching from steam heat to hot-water heat.

"We're basically going from a 1956 heating system to a modern system," said Fischer.

The old boilers — which were each about the size of a box car — have already been removed. The new boilers are closer to the size of a refrigerator, he said, and lots more efficient.

"I think the new boilers are close to 96 or 98 percent efficient," he said, adding that the district did a study that confirmed the move to natural gas would save both money and energy.

MERC already serves Cloquet, Scanlon, Proctor and Hermantown, and the Esko School District had requested they extend to Esko several years ago. At the time, the project was too expensive for the for-profit company. But thanks to changes in the state legislature, utility companies like MERC are now allowed to further extend the timeframe to finance such projects and that made the Esko and Balaton, Minn., projects viable.

The Esko/Thomson Township project will add 26 miles of natural gas lines to the MERC system. Workers tapped into the Northern Natural Gas pipeline north of Morris Thomas Road, then ran a new main line down Canosia road into town. Smaller (yellow colored) lines are being pushed through the ground using directional drilling equipment to create a path for the new line without digging up everyone's yard. About 750 customers will be eligible to receive natural gas service from the utility, which expects to be ready to serve the area by the upcoming heating season.

The costs for extending the gas service will be paid for over 25 years through a surcharge charged monthly to new Thomson Township/Esko customers.

Thomson Township Supervisor Ruth Janke said the extension will also be of great benefit to Esko's business park, which has been growing rapidly in recent years.

Even with the surcharge, MERC spokesman Matt Cullen expects the service to be very competitive with the current electric, propane, wood or fuel oil that people have been using to provide heat.

"It's a reliable, affordable and safe option," he said. "Natural gas is similar to the costs of other sources, and less than some. And it's convenient. It's there when you need it. You don't have to worry about how much you'll need for a certain season."

As well, natural gas companies can't hike the costs of natural gas, rather they are "pass-through" costs, said Cullen.

"The price Minnesota Energy Resources pays to purchase natural gas as a commodity is the same price that is passed along to our customers," he explained.

Construction started in April and they expect to be ready to begin sending natural gas to new homes, businesses and the school buildings in time for the winter heating season.

"Once we get the system gassed up, then we will bring service lines into each home that orders it," Sarvela said, stressing that it is an opt-in service. No one has to get natural gas and no one pays the surcharge unless they request natural gas service.

For those who are interested, application packets are available at Thomson Township Town Hall or online at (search Esko). The website has a page that explained the entire project for those who want to know more. Residents can also call Sarvela at 218-878-2258. There is not a local office with walk-in customer service, even though there are MERC employees based in Cloquet. That means don't go to the Minnesota Energy Resources building to find out more.

Sarvela said they've been getting lots of calls from excited Esko residents, wanting to know how to sign up.

And the school district is happy too.

"The timing couldn't be more perfect," said Fischer.