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Surviving Ice Storms with Natural Gas

Just three weeks ago in February, Oregon’s Willamette Valley was pummeled by a 50-year ice storm.  Hundreds of thousands of homes lost electricity, as well as phone, cable, and cell service – and many neighborhoods went 10 days or more without electric service. It is important to remember what an electrified home loses without electricity: heat (no baseboard heat, no heat pump), no stove or oven for cooking, no appliances (most importantly, no coffeemaker), no lights, and no hot water. But there were no natural gas interruptions during this time. Homes with natural gas could still use their gas fireplaces for heat, their gas stoves to cook, and had hot water from their gas water heaters (think hot showers in a cold house). Why is this? The natural gas system is inherently reliable AND resilient.

It’s important to understand the difference between resilience and reliability. The terms are often referenced together or even used interchangeably, but they are very different. As described in a recent report by the American Gas Foundation, “resilience is defined as a system’s ability to prevent, withstand, adapt to, and quickly recover from a high-impact, low-likelihood event such as a major disruption in a transmission pipeline. In comparison, reliability refers to a systems’ ability to maintain energy delivery under standard operating conditions, such as the standard fluctuations in demand and supply.” So, when we are discussing how the natural gas system performs during a severe ice storm, we are discussing resilience.

The natural gas industry’s resilience can be tested by its ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions, as well as withstand and recover from deliberate attacks, accidents, or naturally occurring threats or incidents.

Ultimately, the greatest test of resilience is whether a utility’s commitments to customers can be met regardless of the degree of stress that is caused by a weather event.

Despite some of nature’s harshest conditions, during the Oregon Ice Storm of 2021, the natural gas industry passed this test with flying colors, proving both exceedingly reliable and resilient.

Resilience was demonstrated through the continued service and availability of natural gas despite threatening weather and outages on the electric grid.

It is exactly this resilience that makes natural gas the perfect complement to electricity in providing warmth and light to homes and businesses in the Pacific Northwest.  And gas is a natural part of the region’s move to decarbonize, providing stability, reliability, and resilience.

Diverse West Coast Leaders Concerned Over Proposed Gas Bans

The City of Seattle recently enacted an energy code that will ban natural gas space and water heating in new commercial and large multi-family buildings starting in March. Washington state lawmakers considered a bill that would ban natural gas in all construction projects starting in 2030. And the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is developing rules as part of Governor Kate Brown’s Cap-and Reduce executive order that could lead to a similar ban on the commercial and residential use of natural gas.  California policymakers are also racing in the same direction.

Utility and business leaders in Washington testified at a January legislative hearing in Olympia on HB 1084, warning it would raise energy costs and encourage certain industries to move their facilities out of state, costing Washington families’ jobs.

Dan Kirschner, NWGA executive director, explained to the committee that the bill “is not the right approach” to reducing carbon emissions in the state. “Unnecessarily raising energy costs, eliminating energy choices, and ultimately abandoning a reliable energy system isn’t necessary to achieve meaningful decarbonization.”

Kirschner explained that Washington has some of the country’s cheapest energy rates, giving it a strong competitive advantage nationally for industries like food processors that rely on natural gas. “The bottom line is those food processing facilities in Central Washington rely on low-cost energy,” he said. “If [costs] go up, it’s entirely possible…that they’ll be looking for options where to shift that production to lower-cost states.” The food processing industry alone employs more than 30,000 people in Washington State, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Association of Washington Business (AWB) Energy Director Peter Godlewski warned the committee that if energy rates go up it will amount to “still yet another reason businesses leave Washington state. We cannot take a healthy grid for granted.”

President Nicole Kivisto of Cascade Natural Gas told the committee that utilities like Cascade are already reducing carbon through energy-saving innovations such as smart thermometers. She added that they should be “enhancing rather than abandoning” natural gas. “What we support is building upon energy efficiency programs.”

And Puget Sound Energy (PSE) State and Federal Affairs Director Janet Kelly noted “particular concerns about reliability and cost impacts. Electrification is not the preferred pathway to achieve carbon reduction.” She added that an E3 study released in December concluded that Washington faces a capacity shortage of up to 7,000 megawatts (MW) by 2025 and that new planned energy sources won’t fill that gap.

The bill in question, HB 1084, failed to make it out of the Appropriations Committee before the legislative deadline. Unions representing different construction and building trade labor interests were pivotal in opposing the measure.

In California, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) has become one of the harshest critics of California’s climate policies and the environmental groups pushing them. The natural gas bans being adopted by California city councils have ignited a backlash from prominent Black and Latino leaders, who are concerned that the energy price increases caused by the prohibitions on the use of natural gas are a form of regressive tax on low- and middle-income residents. Cooper said the environmental groups pushing the bans on natural gas show “deliberate indifference” to California’s low- and middle-income consumers’ needs. “It’s outrageous,” he said.

Sierra Club responded to Cooper and Rubio in a letter saying, “the concerns expressed in your letter regarding the cost of utility bills are exactly those furthered by Sierra Club’s advocacy to assure SoCalGas does not improperly impose expenses on ratepayers.”  However, the Sierra Club says it wants a “gas-free future for our homes and buildings.”

A “gas-free future” ignores the cost impacts on the low and middle class in the California context while achieving minimal GHG reductions. A recent report by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that “whole house electrification programs are likely to exacerbate daily peak electricity loads and increase total household expenditures on energy.” It continues, “Moreover, the state’s continued reliance on natural gas peaker-plants means that these efforts will likely only produce modest GHG emissions abatement benefits.”

Lastly, from the UCLA report, “Low-income residents of disadvantaged communities, who have the least flexible work schedules, the least access to high-efficiency appliances and energy management systems, and inhabit the most poorly insulated housing stock, will be most adversely affected by these changes.”  The same issues apply in Oregon and Washington as well.

Others in California who have spoken out against efforts to ban natural gas include Timothy Alan Simon, the chairman of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, and a former member of the California Public Utility Commission, and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area.  And The Two Hundred, a coalition of Latino civil-rights leaders, has sued California over its energy and housing policies, also opposes gas bans.  The California Restaurant Association has filed a lawsuit to stop the bans, as well as the utility SoCalGas.

The disparity between the haves and have-nots becomes more evident when considering that Californians pay the country’s highest energy prices. Whether in the Central Valley or the Los Angeles basin, temperatures are hotter and commutes to work are longer if you live inland. Californians pay over a dollar more per gallon of gas than the national average. When it comes to electricity, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows Californians pay 55% more than the rest of the nation.

The more than 100,000 miles of safe, reliable infrastructure that is the natural gas system in the Northwest delivers energy to more than 2.5 million homes, 250,000 businesses and institutions, and 5,000 industrial facilities that employ thousands upon thousands of Northwesterners. The energy that the system delivers can and will change. The region’s low carbon goals can be achieved faster, more affordably, and with less disruption by adapting this robust system, rather than by abandoning it to build something new.

Renewable is Doable

 

Renewable is Doable

By Alex Schay

In North America, we rely on natural gas to provide the majority of our space and process heat. It is also safe to assert that, in most cases, the next MegaWatt hour will be generated through the combustion of natural gas. For example, 80% of the heat used for food processing is derived from natural gas.

In order to make meaningful progress toward addressing climate change, gas utilities are taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of their fuel mix. Gas utilities have five tools that will enable them to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel, including:

  • Energy efficiency;
  • Reduce gas flaring and fugitive methane emissions;
  • Tighten up pipeline infrastructure to minimize methane leakage;
  • Surplus renewable electricity may be used to convert water into Renewable Hydrogen (RH2); and,
  • Decomposition of organic waste may be used to produce Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), e.g., at landfills, at commercial & municipal wastewater treatment plants, as well as on dairies and confined animal feeding operations.

What is Renewable Natural Gas?

Both Conventional Natural Gas and Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) contain an identical CH4 molecule. RNG is a green fuel that comes from waste material, such as garbage, human waste, and animal manure. As such, RNG uses waste streams that are part of the current lifecycle to create a useful product that burns cleanly and significantly reduces Greenhouse Gas emissions as compared with gasoline or Diesel.

 

GHG reductions accrue when using CNG and RNG as opposed to gasoline or Diesel
Conventional (fossil) Natural Gas (CNG) 5% – 15%
Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) sourced from a landfill 40% – 50%
RNG sourced from a municipal wastewater treatment plant 75% – 85%
RNG generated from animal manure Ø  > than 100%

Food processing plants may offer a special opportunity for the production of RNG. Many food-processing facilities have their own wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Often times, gas generated at commercial WWTPs is captured in covered lagoons and then sent to a flare. These types of waste-management scenarios offer significant opportunities to improve the gas collection, production, and utilization.

Because the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard classifies biogas generated at food-processing facilities as an “Advanced Biofuel,” RNG generated at such projects will only earn D5 Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) when used as a transportation fuel. More valuable D3 RINs, however, are generated at landfills, municipal WWTPs, as well, as from animal manure. As such, RNG from food-processing facilities will not deliver as much economic benefit as RNG from landfills or municipal WWTPs when used as a transportation fuel.

To that end, RNG produced at food-processing plants may offer a cost-competitive resource that gas utilities may use to reduce their fuel mix’s carbon footprint. For example, a recent analysis of anthropogenic GHG emissions associated with RNG that will be produced at a dairy-processing plant in Washington State revealed that this fuel will have a carbon footprint that is more than 95% lower than conventional natural gas. In this way, food processors may help gas utilities reduce their fuel mix’s carbon intensity in a cost-effective manner.

At present, 32% of US energy consumption is fueled by natural gas. Unlike electricity, which must be used immediately or lost forever, RNG and RH2 can be stored for use when needed. A diversified decarbonization strategy will embrace all technologies, including cleaning up both the electricity grid and natural gas pipeline network. With this context in mind, we encourage an “All-of-the-Above” strategy as we work to decarbonize our energy future.

 

What’s going on with natural gas research and technology development?

The Department of Energy is committing $30 million to the research and development of domestic unconventional oil and gas, both onshore and offshore resources. DOE has selected six projects they believe will improve processes in resource development while advancing technology and engineering practices. Objectives of the research include minimizing environmental impact and risk while building domestic supplies to enhance U.S. energy dominance and security.  To read the full press release, click here.

Meanwhile, engineers are researching technology at The Ohio State University that may have the potential to produce electricity without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.

The technology is called chemical looping, which utilizes produced CO2, metal oxide particles and high pressure to burn biomass and fossil fuels without oxygen. To read the full article click here. To learn about this process in-depth, click here.

GUEST BLOG: Coming Solar Eclipse Further Proves that Renewables Need Natural Gas

Anti-fossil fuel activists like 350.org’s Bill McKibben often pretend the United States can run on 100 percent renewable energy without the use of any traditional fuel sources. McKibben recently wrote in Rolling Stone that “the sundown problem is being solved fast, as batteries are able to store the energy from the morning sun and the wind from a gusty evening to keep the power running overnight.”

McKibben’s claims simply aren’t true though, and preparations for next week’s total solar eclipse illustrate this cold, hard fact.

Because storage technology to allow for solar power to stand alone — even during a brief loss of sunlight — doesn’t currently exist, the solar industry has been actively preparing for how to mitigate the issue in places like sunny California where that industry thrives. The solution? Natural gas.

NWGA Releases Natural Gas Facts Booklet

Natural Gas Facts

This booklet provides an overview of natural gas and the myriad of benefits that this domestic, clean, safe, low-cost and reliable energy source offers the Pacific Northwest consumers. 3.2 million regional natural gas users are enjoying its economic and environmental advantages, but expanding the use and applications of natural gas will help provide an economically feasible, cleaner environment for future generations.

To download and read more, click here.

Natural Gas is Critical in the Energy Future

Jim Piro, President and CEO of Portland General Electric (PGE) was recently interviewed by the Portland Business Journal about the significant transition underway in the energy landscape. The key takeaway is that PGE is carefully and deliberately moving through it. Mr. Piro wants PGE to learn from others, not pioneer new, unproven resources and regulatory regimes. Mr. Piro also reaffirmed the critical role that natural gas must play in PGE’s generation portfolio to ensure that customers always have electricity when they need it:

 “[I]f the wind doesn’t blow for a day or so batteries can’t help you through that. Gas is needed to bridge that difference… If the lights don’t go on, customers aren’t going to worry about whether the gas is in the ground or not in the ground; they’re going to wonder why [PGE] didn’t meet their needs.”

 Not everyone is happy with PGE’s approach as indicated in a guest editorial by the Sierra Club and other Oregon environmental organizations recently published in the Oregonian. Unfortunately, the authors of the opinion piece use inflammatory language and outdated information to support their case. Their claim about “notoriously volatile” natural gas prices caught our eye and we’d like to set the record straight.

According to the to U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) natural gas prices were relatively stable from 1981 to 2000, averaging $3.95/Dekatherm (Dth) when adjusted for inflation ($2015). Gas prices during the first decade of the 21st century were indeed volatile as North America struggled to produce enough natural gas to meet growing demand. From 2001 to 2010 natural gas averaged $6.61/Dth and experienced significant volatility associated with cold and hot weather, and hurricanes that disrupted conventional supply resources.onemoretime

 All that changed with the advent of shale gas which began to come online in 2007 and reached game-changing status around 2010. The average price of natural gas from 2011 to 2015 was $3.57/Dth. In 2015, natural gas averaged $2.62/Dth. The future looks equally stable. EIA projects that natural gas prices will rise to $5/Dth ($2015) and remain there as production technologies become more efficient, quicker to come on line and better for the environment. This is a dramatic change from its 2008 price forecast.

Natural gas is an abundant, cleaner, affordable energy resource. As Mr. Piro notes, it is a vital part of enabling more renewable resources in our region and elsewhere. Without natural gas, our power supply will become less reliable and more expensive. Those are the facts.

Natural Gas Supplies in the Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest natural gas customers benefit from their proximity to the prolific Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) and U.S. Rocky Mountain (Rockies) natural gas-producing regions.

June 7 -8, 2017: 14th Annual Energy Conference

  • Annual Energy Conference
    June 7, 2017 - June 8, 2017
    11:00 am - 4:30 pm
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Jeff Burks to Present on Economic Impacts of the Potential Washington Carbon Rule

We are excited to have Jeff Burks on hand to discuss the implementation of Washington’s Clean Air rule and the requirement for 35 or more covered firms to reduce GHG emissions. This not only has important economic implications for the covered firms but will potentially impact the cost of energy, economic output, and jobs of the entire Washington State economy. Using IMPLAN I-O model. Energy Strategies economists have constructed a 536 sector model of the Washington state economy to evaluate the economic impact of the Clean Air rule. Burks will be presenting the preliminary results of Energy Strategies’ economic impact analysis of the proposed rule. Register for the Annual Energy Conference to hear Burks presentation.

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