It's been more than 20 years since Minnesota Energy Resources Corp. piped a new town for natural gas - and Esko is one of two communities getting access this summer.

"It's not easy to extend natural gas systems to new towns," said Pam Sarvela, external affairs manager for MERC. "... We are really excited."

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So is Esko school district Superintendent Aaron Fischer.

Although he didn't have an exact dollar figure, Fischer said the district stands to save a "substantial" amount of money as it switches from old dual-fuel boilers that burn propane or fuel oil to new boilers that use natural gas with propane as a backup. The district also is switching from steam heat to hot-water heat.

"We're basically going from a 1956 heating system to a modern system," said Fischer.

The old boilers - which were each about the size of a boxcar - already have been removed. The new boilers are closer to the size of a refrigerator, he said, and a lot more efficient.

"I think the new boilers are close to 96 or 98 percent efficient," he said, adding that the district did a study that confirmed the move to natural gas would save both money and energy.

MERC already serves Cloquet, Scanlon, Proctor and Hermantown, and the Esko school district had requested they extend to Esko several years ago. At the time, the project was too expensive for the for-profit company. But thanks to changes made by the state Legislature, utility companies such as MERC are now allowed to further extend the timeframe to finance such projects. That made the Esko and Balaton, Minn., projects viable.

The Esko/Thomson Township project will add 26 miles of natural gas lines to the MERC system. Workers tapped into the Northern Natural Gas pipeline north of Morris Thomas Road, then ran a new main line down Canosia Road into town. Smaller (yellow-colored) lines are being pushed through the ground using directional drilling equipment to create a path with a minimum of digging. About 750 customers will be eligible to receive natural gas service from the utility. Construction started in April, and officials expect to be ready to serve the area by the upcoming heating season.

The costs for extending the gas service will be paid over 25 years through a surcharge charged monthly to new Thomson Township/Esko customers.

Thomson Township Supervisor Ruth Janke said the extension will also be of great benefit to Esko's business park.

Even with the surcharge, MERC spokesman Matt Cullen said he expects the service to be very competitive with the cost of electric, propane, wood or fuel oil that people have been using to provide heat.

"It's a reliable, affordable and safe option," he said. "Natural gas is similar to the costs of other sources, and less than some. And it's convenient. It's there when you need it. You don't have to worry about how much you'll need for a certain season."

"Once we get the system gassed up, then we will bring service lines into each home that orders it," Sarvela said, stressing that it is an opt-in service. No one has to get natural gas and no one pays the surcharge unless they request natural gas service.

For those who are interested, application packets are available at the Thomson Township Town Hall or online at (search Esko). The website has a page that explains the entire project for those who want to know more. Residents also can call Sarvela at (218) 878-2258. There is not a local office with walk-in customer service.

Sarvela said they've been getting lots of calls from Esko residents, wanting to know how to sign up.

And the school district is happy, too.

"The timing couldn't be more perfect," Fischer said.