TRURO - Despite beginning the process to convert the Truro hospital's heating source to natural gas, the provincial government does not have a plan in place to have that fuel source delivered.
The Colchester East Hants Health Centre is one of seven regional hospitals in the province included in a recent government announcement that are being converted to natural gas. The total cost to convert all seven facilities is pegged at $9.7 million.
Health and Wellness Department spokesman Tony Kiritsis told the Truro Daily News the conversion is expected to be completed by 2016 and that the expected method of natural gas to the CEHHC will be via pipeline.
However, Chris Smith, vice-president of finance for Heritage Gas, said the nearest pipeline section to Truro is about 15 kms away and the company has been trying since to 2003 to find an economical way to bring natural gas to Truro.
"We would love to provide service to the hospital in Truro, but we haven't figured out how we would do that," he said. "We have not figured out an economical way to do that yet. So it's still a work in progress on our behalf and we're not in a position to make an application to URAB (Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board) to allow us to do that."
And neither is the company involved in any discussions with the Liberal government about such a plan, Smith said.
"Heritage Gas has not made any kind of regulatory application to provide service to the Town of Truro," he said. "We will work with the government to try to figure out a solution for all the hospitals they are talking about. We haven't really gotten into the nitty gritty details of how that will happen."
In the July 18 announcement, Health and Wellness Minister Leo Glavine cited the benefits of natural gas as being a cleaner energy source than furnace oil and that the long-term savings for the seven hospitals will be "in the millions" once all the conversions are complete.
Smith, however, said that besides the hospital, virtually every major business and industry in Truro, including the Nova Scotia Community College, the Dalhousie University Agricultural College and the Rath Eastlink Community Centre would all have to come on board to make it economically feasible to justify the estimated $10 million to $15 million cost of constructing a pipeline lateral to the town.
In recent years, Heritage Gas has made some preliminary inquiries with some local industries and businesses to try to gauge the interest in converting to natural gas, but Smith said it is not yet in a position to restart those discussions.
"We have to have a pretty good aggressive recruitment of all those customers to make it economic for us to invest the capital that would be required go make it happen. We haven't really been able to make that argument,"he said.
"The next time that we actively recruit in Truro we'd like to be able to have a confirmed plan that if ‘this' happens, we'll be bringing gas to Truro. It's not fair to raise expectations until such time that we know that we've got a plan that will work."
Smith said Heritage Gas is the only company in the province that is in a position to construct the necessary pipeline, which could be completed by 2016 or '17. But it would need prior commitments from enough customers to make such a project financially viable it could even apply to do so.
Truro Mayor Bill Mills, who has been a strong proponent of finding cheaper heating sources, said he would like to see a natural gas pipeline brought to the town. But he agreed with Smith that Heritage Gas will have to be able to provide sound information before trying to get potential customers to commit to making expensive conversions.
And he wondered why the provincial government would not have done more to investigate that side of things before proceeding with the hospital plan.
"You would think if they are going to do it for the hospital the natural progression would be towards the industrial park in Truro," he said, of a potential pipeline.
"They have to have just about everybody on board in order to do this," Mills said. "Well, we can't start canvassing them at the last minute. We have to start canvassing them today. And really, we should have started yesterday."
And if the government does plan to initiate such discussions, "we need to get serious about it," he said.
"I would be interested in talking with them. But I am not interested in going down another rabbit trail if this thing is just window dressing."
Smith called the hospital conversions a good step in the right direction toward natural gas expansion in the province.
"It's a key step. But ... there's a lot more work to be done to recruit other customers that would also be important for us to build an economic case," he said.