Fear & Trembling In The US Natural Gas Industry (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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Natural gas has been the main force pushing coal out of the power generating sector in the US, and if coal stakeholders are thirsting for revenge they’re probably going to get it. Renewables are already beginning to edge gas out of the US electricity market, which is bad enough. Even worse is a new movement to pry natural gas loose from its grip on millions of buildings around the US.

Okay, so buildings don’t seem particularly dramatic. But when you talk about natural gas use in buildings — heating, air conditioning, cooking, providing hot water, drying clothes, running emergency generators — and then add in industrial and commercial uses — you’re also talking about the thousands of miles of pipes and storage facilities that keep it all running, and the climate-warming methane gas that leaks all over the sprawling system.


On Beyond Coal

The campaign to build support for an all-electric future for millions of US buildings is already under way. One major stakeholder in the movement is Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute.

CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with RMI Senior Fellow Bruce Nilles, who joined the organization just last month to work on the electrification campaign.

If that name sounds familiar, think of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which was helmed by Nilles.

“We had more success than in our wildest dreams,” Nilles told CleanTechnica. “A lot of attention and resources have been applied to the [power generation] sector, and we’re going to apply those lessons to other sectors.”

The fundamental lesson is to squeeze from the top down and the bottom up. In the absence of support from the Trump administration, the top-down part of the equation looks practically impossible. However, Nilles points out that even the Obama administration acted primarily out of compulsion:

The coal industry has had remarkable exceptions from clean water and clean air regulations.

A big part of the Beyond Campaign was working with the Obama administration, but not a single rule was issued without being preceded by a lawsuit.

As for success, the continued rush to close coal power plants during the Trump administration is only part of the story. The Beyond Coal campaign launched during the Bush administration, when policy makers proposed building 200 new coal power plants in the US west.

That’s where the bottom-up part of the strategy comes in. According to Nilles, not a single one of that group was built. He credits increased public awareness about the health impacts of local coal power plants.

Beyond Coal’s awareness-raising efforts paid off even in fossil-friendly Kansas and other “unlikely places for resistance.” That’s partly due to the existence of liberal enclaves that were more open to activism:

For example, the Blount Street coal plant in Madison, Wisconsin was the dirtiest in the state. Madison Gas and Electric had branded itself as a ‘community power company’ and people assumed that it was clean — but it had never installed modern pollution controls.

It was the same for other coal plants. People had never connected their breathing problems to older coal plants.

…The power company was spending money on touting what a good company they are, but they weren’t doing the upgrades.

So, Now Can We Talk About Natural Gas?

Beyond Coal is still firing away on all pistons, and Nilles is looking forward to applying lessons learned to weaning natural gas from buildings (as well as oil and propane, but we’ll get to that in another article):

There are a lot of folks who despair at national politics and care about climate change but don’t know what to do.

With coal plants, we found that local actors can make profound differences.

So, we don’t want to duplicate Beyond Coal, but we do want people to start thinking about the end game.

In terms of urban problems, the next biggest issue after transportation is gas burned in buildings. It’s a problem for both climate change and local air pollution.

Now look at where the problem is concentrated: in big, progressive cities…this is a huge part of the puzzle. It is city-based, and it can be addressed locally.

Okay, So Now What?

Though Nilles anticipates a receptive audience for the message, he acknowledges that the scope of the problem is daunting.

“We know that gas is leaking everywhere,” he said. “There are chronic leaks all over the place. And, even if you get rid of non-stove appliances, you still have the same gas infrastructure.”

That all-or-nothing nature of the task at hand comes into sharper focus when you consider the economic aspects.

A recent RMI report modeled a lifecycle savings of electric appliances compared to gas, but that mainly applies to newly constructed all-electric homes, and to gas-to-electric retrofits under some limited circumstances.

In general the economics of retrofitting existing homes work against electrification (break added), according to the report:

…for many existing homes currently heated with natural gas, converting to electric heat pumps for space and water heating will increase customer costs at today’s prices.

Customers with existing gas service face higher up-front costs to retrofit to electric space and water heating than to install new gas devices, and either pay more for energy with electric devices—generally in colder climates—or save too little in energy costs to make up the additional capital cost.

That’s where the top-down part of the strategy kicks in. Local policy has to change.

As described by Nilles, that’s going to take some elbow grease:

This conversation hasn’t even started yet. There are incentives steering us to gas, but there are no incentives to replace, say, a gas hot water heater with electric, even though new electric heat pumps are more efficient.

Nilles anticipates building on the growing interest of electric utilities in clean power. As with Beyond Coal, part of the strategy is to peel away the historic alliances between energy companies and coal producers.

Consumer safety, improved convenience, and the potential for selling new problems would all be at play on that score.

By the same token, Nilles plans to build relationships with appliance manufacturers, rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, and allied unions.

Even with a level playing field, Nilles cautioned that an electricity-centric policy has to consider social impacts:

We’re looking at designing pilots for cities that want to lead, for retrofitting homes quickly and equitably. You don’t want to concentrate a shrinking gas market in low income households.

What Are The Chances For Success?

Winding up the conversation, Nilles pointed out that the natural gas campaign would make no sense without the success of Beyond Coal to leverage it.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t clear how we were going to decarbonize the other sectors, until clean power came on the scene. The cleaner the electricity, the cleaner these other sectors will be.

Speaking of clean, evidence is growing about the health impacts of using natural gas at home, and it’s enough to make your hair curl.

That’s over and above all that stuff about climate change, fracking impacts (including water use as well as water pollution), the occasional high-profile episode of leakage and, of course, explosion.

Expect to hear more — much more — about natural gas in your home from RMI and its allied stakeholders. Nilles has a Climate Breakthrough Project award in his pocket, which will help the campaign get a running start out of the box.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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