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NCUC denies approving fiber-thru-gas-lines technology

Thu, 10/11/2001 - 8:00pm
Anne Kerven

The industry's seen fiber optic cable go the last mile via sewer lines — but gas lines? Sempra Fiber Links says it just finished stringing fiber optic line through a one-mile span in the North Carolina service territory of Frontier Energy.

But its claims that the North Carolina Utilities Commission attested to the technology's safety aren't true, a NCUC spokesman says.

"Oh God, that's what I'm working on," says Senior Operations Analyst Bill Gilmore. "That statement is false."

Sempra, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy — as is Frontier Energy — says it's invented a process to place fiber-optic cable into existing natural gas pipelines, as a way to avoid digging up city streets and sidewalks.

Sempra says the system is safe, quick and effective. It just completed its North Carolina installation with North American gas company execs watching.

Gilmore, who this morning said he was writing a letter to Sempra's attorney regarding the statements, says NCUC has told Sempra over several months that it couldn't attest to safety. NCUC follows federal and state guidelines, and there are none covering the new technology. But Sempra issued a press release yesterday, stating NCUC had attended the opening to "attest to the safety of the technology."

Sampra spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews says the company uses normal construction practices and procedures used by gas companies. Fiber optic cable doesn't create any electric sparks and the technology is safe, she says.

Gilmore, whose department focuses on gas lines but not telecommunications, says his beef is not the technology.

"We don't want to stomp on a great new technology," he says. If someone can find a last-mile solution that's safe and doesn't tear up infrastructure, "Hallelujah."

"I'm upset they're telling the world they have our stamp of approval," he says. "I'm not worried about the system." He agrees that photons traveling over fiber cable won't ignite the gas, he adds. Further, the components and links used are standard and were checked by his staff. But Gilmore says his concerns relate more to fiber installation causing line ruptures and gas leaks, and the gas lines' decreased capacity from having cables placed inside.

NCUC will also examine liability and ratepayer compensation for the use of the lines, particularly given their decreased capacity. Any time a regulated line is used for for-profit purposes, the commission looks at ratepayer compensation, he says. And liability needs to be outlined: If something goes bad and blows up someone's house, he says, "Who pays for it?"

NCUC will consider the points when Frontier files a mandatory affiliate contract, he says.

Andrews says the company was surprised to hear there were objections. After talking with CEDaily, she checked with NCUC representatives who were at the launch, who said they couldn't validate anyone's product or service. "But they were there and had positive things to say about it," she says.

Gilmore also pointed out Sempra's claim that Frontier Energy serves 150,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in North Carolina is not true, and that Frontier actually only serves "a couple hundred." But that was "a small thing," he says.

Andrews said the number "was our mistake," and reflected projections for when the project was completed. She didn't have a completion date.

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