Natural gas -- cheap, abundant, less polluting, domestically produced -- may be transforming the nation's energy market.
But Connecticut is a wallflower at this new energy dance.
The state lags far behind its neighboring states and the national average when it comes to having access to natural gas, and the cost of building out a pipeline network is daunting.
"We don't have the infrastructure," said Lee Hoffman, a Hartford attorney who has worked on environmental issues in the state.
As a result, Connecticut residents have one of the highest reliances in the nation on home heating oil, an expensive energy source.
How expensive? In 2011, it cost $868 to heat an average home in the Northeast with natural gas compared to $2,238 with home heating oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. That price disparity will continue into the near future, an agency spokesperson said.
With much of the nation tapping into natural gas, the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is poised to call for making natural gas a major thrust of the state's long-term energy plan. So are the three gas companies that serve Connecticut and who see a market for their product.
Yankee Gas, part of Northeast Utilities, says it wants to spend $2.5 billion over the next decade to add 200,000 new customers in Connecticut.
"It's about demand," said Yankee Gas spokeswoman Anita Ford Saunders. "We are inundated with calls from residents who aren't able to get natural gas."
Yankee Gas now wants to expand into areas where it sees demand developing, Saunders said, rather that wait until it has commitments from customers.
Likewise, Michael West, director of communications for UIL Holdings, which owns the state's two other natural gas companies -- Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Natural Gas -- said the two companies have set a goal of adding 30,000 to 35,000 customers a year for the next three years.
The companies are banking on rising consumer demand because of the cheapness of natural gas.
"It's why we are so bullish," West said. "It's simple economics."
The two pipelines that bring gas to the state are also aware of the prospects of expanding in Connecticut.
Andrea Grover, spokeswoman for Spectra Energy, the company that owns the Algonquian pipeline, said Spectra has been in discussions with both natural gas distributors in Connecticut and state regulators about expanding in New England.
"Algonquian is eager to furnish more gas to the region," Grover said. But before that happens "we need the market demands."
And while Iroquois Gas Transmission System has no plans to expand its pipeline facility in the state, it can increase its supply of gas by increasing compression and other methods, spokesperson Ruth Parkins said.
BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE?
The Malloy administration's intentions will be made more clear in mid-September, when the DEEP releases the state's first Comprehensive Energy Strategy -- an attempt to realign Connecticut's energy mix for the future.
DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said natural gas will be a "key part" of that plan.
Schain, like others, sees the advance in natural gas production as an opportunity to move the world away from coal and oil toward an energy mix that increasingly relies on renewable fuel sources like solar, wind and hydropower,
"It's a bridge to a clean energy future," he said.
But it will cost a lot of money to build that bridge. Expanding natural gas use means expanding natural gas lines into new areas of the state, then getting homeowners to hook up to those lines. That will cost some serious money
Ashley Duncan, spokeswoman for Yankee Gas said that the cost of hooking up a home to natural gas varies, largely depending on the distance from the home to an existing main.
But, she said, if all expenses are included -- extending the main line, if needed; buying new gas equipment; and a hiring a contractor to install it -- the cost to convert a single-family home to natural gas heat and hot water is about $7,500.
"With the current price advantage and increased energy efficiency, that investment will pay for itself in just a few years," Duncan said.
It may also mean expanding the amount of natural gas coming into the state, which now gets natural gas from the two pipeline systems -- the Algonquian and the Iroquois -- that run through it. Right now, there just isn't widespread availability.
"That's what we're grappling with right now," Schain said.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The revolution in producing natural gas in the United States has broken out only in the past decade.
Oil and natural gas industries have used a combination of existing techniques -- including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- to release huge deposits of natural gas contained in shale deposits.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that largely because of shale gas the United States will be able to increase its output of natural gas from 21.6 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to 27.9 trillion feet in 2035.
"It is the second-largest natural gas deposit in the world, after one that's, ironically, in Iran," said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-industry group with its offices in Pittsburgh.
Windle said that as recently as 2005 natural gas-rich countries like Iran, Russia and Venezuela considered creating an international natural gas cartel similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC.
The natural gas now being piped out of the Marcellus shale made such a cartel unworkable, he said.
"That chapter is closed," Windle said
For the foreseeable future, natural gas is cheap, abundant and likely to remain so for at least a century. James Staub, leader of the U.S. Energy Information Agency's exploration and production team, said there is also natural gas in shale formations in many other parts of the country -- Texas, Louisiana and North Dakota.
The gas in those shale formations should give the U.S. a plentiful supply of natural gas for the next 90 to 100 years, Staub said.
Cheaper fuel provides an obvious advantage to homeowners and businesses alike -- especially in a tough economy. The less money spent on heating, the more money available to spend on other things.
"It's like getting a tax break," Windle said.
And of all the petroleum-based fuels, natural gas is the cleanest. A report, "Benchmarking Air Emissions," released in August showed the nation's 100 largest electric power producers were producing less greenhouse gas, mostly because utilities are increasingly using natural gas rather than coal to generate electricity.
"Natural gas continues to be the `big story' in the energy sector," the report said.
Natural gas has already transformed how electricity is made in the U.S.
Hartford attorney Hoffman pointed out that any new energy plant in Connecticut will be powered by natural gas.
Coal is too polluting, he said, and nuclear power too controversial. Natural gas is also cheap and cleaner than comparable fuels.
"It's a no-brainer," he said.
SAVINGS MOUNT UP
Those who can turn to natural gas have seen its advantages.
The town of Ridgefield, which brought a gas line to several municipal buildings, saw its energy bill for those buildings drop by 35 percent, said Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
The town is now spending about $500,000 to extend gas lines to two schools and the Ridgefield Community Center. The energy savings the town will reap in those buildings will pay for the line in less than five years, Marconi said.
Danbury Hospital now has a gas-fired turbine co-generation plant. Along with providing the building with its own sources of energy, the plant saved the hospital $3.2 million in 2012, said Morris Groves, the hospital's vice president for facilities management.
By 2014, that will rise to $4.8 million. The $15.5 million plant, he said, will pay for itself in five years.
But energy consultant Joel Gordes, of West Hartford, who has pushed for decades to diversify the state's energy mix and who sees the benefits natural gas can bring to the state, said he foresees problems if people rush to use it.
For one thing, he said, prices, supply and demand aren't static things. If the demand goes up sharply, so do prices.
If everyone switches to natural gas it could create a kind of energy monoculture in the state where everyone -- utilities, businesses, homeowners -- get too dependent on natural gas and the pipelines running through the state. If the flow of gas in those pipelines get disrupted, he said, there would be hard choices to make: either heat homes or make electricity.
He also said that low gas prices could do the same thing low oil prices have done -- make state officials forget about working on alternative energy supplies.
"We could be seeing the same start-stop, start-stop cycle we've had in the past," Gordes said.