The Value of Natural Gas in the Pacific Northwest – Electrification: Climate Panacea or Risky Business?

What is the best path forward to achieve meaningful emissions reductions in the Northwest? Some believe that “electrify everything” is the answer. But the electrification pathway to deep decarbonization carries serious economic and reliability risks, as well as environmental consequences. If you rely on one source for all energy, what happens during outages? What happens during peak cold days in the winter, when demand-response systems and utility-scale power storage systems (i.e. large batteries) cannot sufficiently supplement intermittent production by solar and wind sources?

Let’s look at some numbers. FortisBC’s natural gas system is designed to meet the peak demand equivalent of 28.1 GW. In contrast, BC Hydro’s current peak demand is 11.1 GW; when its Site C dam is completed, that will add an additional 1.1 GW of generation at a cost of about $10 billion. Based on the expected cost of the Site C project, electrifying just FortisBC’s natural gas demand would require multiple billion dollars in investments in BC Hydro’s system.

Here’s a real-world example. On January 7, 2017, from 7:00a, to 8:00 am, the electric system delivered about 30 GWh of useful energy to Northwest consumers (energy for space and water heat, lighting, electronics, etc., not including BC). During that same one-hour time frame, the natural gas system delivered the equivalent of 53 GWh, or almost double the amount of end-use energy. Imagine tripling the current power infrastructure to serve one hour of load (serving an average winter hour might only require doubling the power delivery infrastructure) while abandoning more than 100,000 miles of existing safe, reliable, resilient, and affordable energy delivery infrastructure.

A note on affordability and resilience. The current delivered cost of electricity to Northwest consumers is about three times more than the energy equivalent amount of natural gas.[1] Underground natural gas distribution systems serving the Northwest communities devastated by the tragic 2020 Labor Day fires were safely shut down ahead of the inferno are undamaged and available to be placed back into service when homes and businesses are rebuilt.

Ultimately, electrification would require staggering investments in the electric grid (e.g., transmission and distribution infrastructure) along with significant investments in additional power sources – whether energy efficiency, power storage, demand-response, new generation, or potentially costly purchases on the spot market. Electrification would also compel homeowners and businesses to replace appliances and cause significant power bill increases.

According to a 2018 American Gas Association study, aggressive policy-driven residential electrification could reduce GHG emissions across the U.S. by only 1 to 1.5 percent by 2035.[2] In the Northwest, served by gas distribution[3] and transmission systems with lower emissions relative to elsewhere, the reduction achievements would be even smaller.

And no one has yet estimated the environmental costs of the new electric transmission and distribution infrastructure that would have to be built to move the replacement electricity to market, nor the incremental emissions that will result from increased electricity generation in the near-term,[4] nor the waste stream created by renewables,[5] or whether major new transmission lines could be built from renewable projects to cities due to increased opposition and regulatory delays.

Steps towards a Low-Emissions, Diversified Energy Future

It makes considerably more sense to keep our options open in the future by maintaining a mix of energy sources and employing each where it is most efficient and cost-effective. At the same time, we must continue to innovate and reduce emissions from all energy sources.

In the Pacific Northwest, the natural gas industry is committed to supporting GHG abatement targets while also continuing to provide its customers with choices and reliable solutions at a reasonable and predictable cost. NWGA members are exploring how best to reliably and affordably decarbonize their systems and some have made concrete commitments:

    • 30% reduction in emissions by 2030
    • Reduce oil and gas system emissions by 35% by 2030
    • Zero methane emissions from distribution systems by 2022
    • Net-zero carbon by 2050

Furthermore, NWGA members have been and will continue investing in:

    • Energy efficiency and demand-side management programs
    • Replacing higher-carbon fuels for all uses (space and water heating, transportation, electricity generation) with cleaner alternatives such as RNG and hydrogen.
    • Efficient natural gas-fired generation plants to support intermittent renewable energy sources and meet peak demand
    • An ever-tighter natural gas delivery system

These actions will help maintain a healthy and diversified energy system across our region, ensuring system reliability; enabling emissions reductions through innovation, and putting North America’s abundant, low-priced natural gas supply to good use.

[1] U.S. EIA, average annual residential NG Prices; average annual residential electricity prices.

[2] Click here for a summary of the potential implications of residential electrification.

[3] A study conducted by Washington State University found that methane emissions from natural gas local distribution systems throughout the U.S. are also declining.

[4] In BC, this includes investments in liquefied natural gas (LNG) systems to displace marine fuel oil in the international marine segment and to displace coal in Asian economies, with associated emissions reductions.

[5] Decommissioned wind farm turbines are not recyclable, and already posing issues at landfills.  See this NPR story.