ANGOLA — It is possible that gas capacity limitations are being faced by communities other than those in Steuben County.

In response to a set of questions posed to NIPSCO’s communications department, a statement provided by the company said it was possible that problems could exist elsewhere, beyond those in Steuben County.

“It is likely there are additional areas in NIPSCO’s gas service territory, the state and our country where additional infrastructure investment would be required to serve a significant amount of increased gas load,” the statement said. “NIPSCO has an obligation to serve all areas within its service territory and works with prospective customers to assess the infrastructure and associated costs involved with serving them.”

As it stands, NIPSCO officials say they are committed to working with communities to solve their natural gas capacity issues. To expand, all players will have to have financial skin in the game, not just NIPSCO.

In testimony before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in 2020, Steuben County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Isaac Lee said the county had missed out on numerous projects from companies that wanted to locate or expand there but did not due to gas capacity.

In a meeting with community, business and NIPSCO leaders on Nov. 17, a handful of business owners or managers talked about expansion projects that were hampered or altered by natural gas capacity issues.

Carver Non-Woven Technologies, Fremont, underwent a major transformation of its plant in order to accommodate growth. The plant, which does about half of its work for the automotive industry and the other half for the recreational vehicle industry, converted parts of its plant to liquified propane for heating in order to free up natural gas to expand its business.

Carver’s president, Karl VanBecelaere, said four of its customers, which take Carver’s product and finish out molded parts for vehicles and RVs, wanted to move the Fremont area in order to be closer to its supplier, Carver.

It didn’t happen due to a lack of gas capacity. These companies have to heat the woven sheets supplied by Carver in order to mold them into finished parts.

“I’ve probably had at least four of my customers want to put plants beside us in the last year, in the year that I’ve been here, and they all use gas for the molding. They have to heat those. It’s unavailable,” VanBecelaere said.

But you can’t take anecdotal evidence to the bank, NIPSCO says.

“In order to make an investment, projects must ensure NIPSCO’s assets are going to be ‘used and useful’ at the time of completion. Economic development agencies around the state are routinely asked for project proposals. Sometimes those projects have a high likelihood of coming to fruition. Other times, those projects are being competitively bid on by cities around the state, region and nation and have a low likelihood of being secured,” NIPSCO’s statement said.

During the Nov. 17 meeting, Steuben County Councilman Dan Caruso asked, “Maybe a good last question would be the elephant in the room is why didn’t this conversation happen six years ago? Because we made NIPSCO well aware of the problem. All of our communities have been investing, immeasurable amount of resources, our EDC board, our counties our towns. Besides the lost revenues of time lost this very conversation, there is a bit of data that couldn’t have been had six years ago when we asked for this conversation.”

NIPSCO’s Erin Whitehead, vice president for major accounts, said information relayed to the company at the time resulted in a solution that could not be afforded by NIPSCO or the community.

“There were conversations on ongoing, we did ask for this growth plan. We weren’t sure at the time that if it was realistic, and what we put together in order to serve that growth plan was like a $240 million project. Right? Well, we can’t invest that kind of money. And you guys didn’t have that money to invest at the time, right,” Whitehead said. “So we need a realistic look like 10, 15 20 years. So we can adopt just everyone’s point, right? We can figure out what that revenue is like back to us. So we know our contribution. We know you all’s contribution or federal contribution, state contribution, wherever that money’s going to come from. We can’t fund it all, you guys can’t fund it all. So we need to figure out that realistic plan and then solve for it. And we’re committed to do that.”

Lee said between 2016 and 2020 there were 15 companies that did not locate in Steuben County or looked elsewhere because of natural gas.

“SCEDC’s total estimated lost investment is over $3.5 billion and the potential of over 2,500 new jobs. This would have had a projected payroll impact of over $83.2 million annually. Each of these projects is of the type and size that Steuben County could attract if adequate gas supply existed, and all other requirements could have been met based on the initial information provided to ,” Lee testified before the IURC. “These opportunities do not include 12 additional leads we .”

NIPSCO said it is not fair to use gas capacity as the sole reason for a company turning a community down.

“It is difficult to ascertain the number of projects that had a high likelihood of being sited in Steuben County if additional gas capacity had been available, particularly because that is just one of a host of factors considered when economic development decisions are made. We do not believe it is an accurate assessment to attribute all decisions where Steuben County was not selected directly to gas capacity,” NIPSCO’s statement said.

NIPSCO went on to say that it will make decisions to upgrade infrastructure if an economic development project does materialize. An example of that was with the electric vehicle battery plant under construction in Kokomo.

“Ultimately, it comes down to having a firm project commitment with a signed customer contract to use energy before NIPSCO is permitted to make a large investment. The recent Stellantis/Samsung electric vehicle battery plant now being sited in Kokomo is a perfect example,” the statement said. “NIPSCO could not prudently consider making such an investment ‘in case’ a factory might site there. However, we were pleased to partner when the actual opportunity came to fruition. It should be noted that project is funded by the following mix: the project customer, state resources, and NIPSCO’s ratepayers.”

Locally, officials at the Nov. 17 meeting said they were surprised when they started learning there were gas capacity issues in Steuben County, making it difficult to grow.

The biggest problem has been in Fremont, but in the Nov. 17 meeting, NIPSCO officials said they were working with supplier ANR Pipeline to bring more capacity to Fremont.

The issue now is Angola, where Steuben County is building a new judicial center that’s about 54,000 square feet and Trine University continues to grow significantly.

Trine had to pay $327,000 to upgrade a line in southern Steuben County that feeds Angola. That line is about 6 miles south of Angola. The 6-inch line was upgraded to 12 inches. After several hundred feet of expansion to 12 inches, the pipe then feeds back into a 6-inch high pressure line.

“An 8-inch line was what was required to serve Trine University’s needs, with the cost for upgrades to serve additional load split between NIPSCO and the customer,” the NIPSCO statement said. “NIPSCO determined it was prudent to install a 12-inch line (with the incremental cost being covered by NIPSCO) in order to bolster the broader system in Angola and beyond. The intent of the larger line is to allow additional capacity on the line itself, providing incremental relief on the system. When the project was confirmed, it was determined it was cost effective in the long-term to upsize pipe at NIPSCO’s cost now.”

The project had a total cost of $1.6 million.

It is possible that Steuben County will have to cough up a few hundred thousand dollars to continue upgrading the same line, but NIPSCO has not released what it might charge because that information is in strict confidence between it and the customer. In the case with Steuben County, the sum will be public because the county can’t keep the data secret under state public access laws.

In its statement to KPC Media, NIPSCO repeated a point made in the Nov. 17 meeting: Developers must conduct their due diligence on utilities before digging dirt.

“A successful project should always consider all infrastructure before it begins, which includes water, sewer, electric, gas, communications, roads, etc. Well before a customer is beginning construction, they should reach out regarding all infrastructure needs, (including contacting NIPSCO about gas and/or electric service) to determine whether existing infrastructure is sufficient to serve their new load, or whether additional infrastructure investment may be required to do so,” the NIPSCO statement said. “If additional investment is required, the associated cost estimates, responsibility and timeline for construction will be provided by NIPSCO. We encourage customers to reach out as early in the planning process as possible, as this enables collaboration between NIPSCO and the customer, and ensures service can be established at both the best possible cost and timeframe.”

Steuben County is awaiting a response to its request for natural gas service at its new judicial center, where the basement walls are being formed up and poured.

NIPSCO officials told Weigand Construction officials it would take about 30 days to provide an answer on its $25.2 million project. That was at the beginning of November. It’s possible Steuben County will have an answer, a potential “will serve” letter, in the coming couple weeks.

“NIPSCO also provides infrastructure review and ‘will serve’ letters to developers, realtors and contractors during the due diligence process of land purchases,” the NIPSCO statement said.

And it’s possible that Steuben County, in order to be served, will have to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of its project. Just like Trine.
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