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Columbia University Study Shows How to Decarbonize Using Natural Gas Network

In a thoughtful study released in April 2021, the Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy reveals the opportunities and challenges with using the nation’s natural gas infrastructure to decarbonize the economy. Their primary conclusion: “In the same way that the electric grid allows for increasingly low-carbon electrons to be transported, the natural gas grid should be viewed as a way to enable increasingly low-carbon molecules to be transported.”

In the Pacific Northwest, 75,000 miles of installed natural gas infrastructure exists as a resource to help transition us to clean energy. How can this infrastructure be used to advance clean energy in our region? Here are some of the opportunities, challenges and recommendations from the Columbia study.

1. Renewable gas: The existing natural gas infrastructure can deliver clean energy.

  • Renewable natural gas is made by capturing emissions from landfills, wastewater treatment facilities and agricultural operations and converting it into gas for residential and commercial customers. In the process of making RNG, carbon dioxide is removed making it a clean energy source.

  • Hydrogen can be blended with – and eventually replace – natural gas. It can be made by capturing and storing carbon dioxide, thereby creating a clean energy. Or it can be made by capturing excess wind and solar power and converting it to gas through a process called electrolysis. Here’s information on a pilot project going on right here in Washington.

2. Cost: One of the primary challenges in developing renewable gas will be its higher cost compared with traditional natural gas. One thing we know about technology, however, is cost will decrease over time. As wind power technology has improved during the past 20 years, projects have been able to generate more power at lower costs. The same will be true of RNG and hydrogen. The difference is hydrogen can transport energy at any time – not just when the wind blows – through an energy network not already operating at capacity. This is why renewable gas can be a smart partner to other forms of clean electricity.

3. Incentives for development: The Columbia University study notes that in 2020 the U.S. Congress Select Committee on Climate Crisis recommended expanding the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit used by wind and solar for the development of hydrogen. There is now a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in Congress attempting to do just that.

There is a lot more analysis in the study, and we encourage you to read it. The fundamental takeaway, however, is unmistakable: natural gas infrastructure is a valuable asset that should be leveraged to drive decarbonization.

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