The morning eggs may have cooked a fraction of a second faster on gas stoves in Baltimore and some Washington area homes yesterday as a new and controversial energy source, liquefied natural gas imported from Algeria, began flowing in tiny amounts through the region's pipelines.
The first effect was a rise in gas rates for Virginia customers of the Washington Gas Light Co. A company spokesman said Maryland and D.C. customers will begin paying the higher tariff July 1, and estimated the total cost at $14 per year for the average residential customer.
The second effect of LNG's arrival was a slight rise in the heat produced in the region's stoves and gas hot water heaters.
The imported gas burns slightly hotter than ordinary gas. This has created problems of safety, technology and of course, money, which are likely to be repeated as the new industry grows. In the Washington-Baltimore area, an estimate $6.5 million is at stake.
That is the projected cost of checking all the hot water heaters in the area and replacing those that might clog with soot if they burn the Algerian import. The figure is an estimated $2.5 million for Washington and $3 million to $4 million for Baltimore Gas and Electric. Still at issue is who will pay for the conversions.
Lawrence McCoy, one of the army of meter readers who began making the hot water heater inspections in April, said customers are relieved when he tells them that Washington Gas will surface their burners free of charge.
He does not mention that the switch is necessary because the wrong kind of burner could eventually clog and cause deadly carbon monoxide to back up inside the home.
"No, we just tell them we're looking at what type burner they have. He we were to tell them it was fatal they'd get all excited and scared," McCoy said.
The amount of the new gas now in the pipes is too tiny to make any difference yet, but it will be significant this fall when regualr LNG shipments are arriving at Columbia LNG Corp's new terminal at Cove Point, Md. An estimated 13,500 of Baltimore Gas' 500.000 customers or 27 percent will need the new burners and will have them long before then, a company spokesman said. An official of Washington Gas estimated that 2.000 of the utility's 545.000 customers would need the changes, which sould be completed by early August.
The two utilities have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to decide whether they - and ultimately their customers should pay the $6.5 million or whether all the utilities benefiting from increased gas supplies to Columbia Gas should share the burden.
The Algerian gas arrives in super-cooled liquid form in special insulated tankers that dock at Cove Point. As the liquid is slowly heated, it becomes gas again and is piped out to mix with the rest of Columbia's gas supplies at a piepline facility near Evergreen Mills in Loundoun County, eight miles northwest of Dulles International Airport.
Since Washington Gas and Baltimore Gas take their supplies from Columbia directly off that pipeline loop, they are the utilities that will receive a mix including the hotter burning Algerian gas. The rest of Columbia's 75 utility customers will continue to receive ordinary gas from other sources.
"It is merely an accident of geography . . . or the manner in which the Washington-Baltimore system is designed that we have to make changes" while no other utility must, argued attorney Monte R. Edwards for Washington Gas in a May 10 regulatory commission hearing on the case. Another hearing is set for July 10.