Natural Gas Swings, Misses Inexorable March To The All-Electric Future

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Holy bad timing, Batman! Earlier this month, mere days before a series of horrific natural gas-fueled fires and explosions torched dozens of homes, injured 25 people, killed one person, and displaced thousands in the Merrimack Valley region in Massachusetts, the American Gas Association issued a new report that makes the case against transitioning US homes out of natural gas and into electricity.

Did you miss it? So did we! It’s little wonder that the AGA report got steamrolled by the news cycle. The somewhat less than interesting title, “Implications of Policy-Driven Residential Electrification,” probably didn’t help much in terms of publicity, either.

Nevertheless, the report was prepared with the top notch consulting firm ICF, so it’s well worth a close look.

It’s Hard To Argue With Natural Gas Explosions!

Actually, before we get into the AGA report, let’s catch up with that unfortunate natural gas episode in Massachusetts.

Earlier this week Boston University’s BU Today published an interview with Nathan Phillips, a professor in the school’s College of Arts & Sciences who has done extensive research on natural gas distribution systems — and their tendency to leak.

According to Phillips, somewhat ironically the episodes appears to be related to work intended to upgrade an “aging, leaking pipeline system.”

Although the probability of similar incidents is extremely low, Phillips warns:

…What happened in the Merrimack Valley can happen in any gas system, as they are centralized, often single point-of-failure network systems with little redundancy…

Notably, Phillips gives full credit to the local gas utility for its apparent commitment to cover the cost of converting water heaters in the affected homes from gas heat to electricity:

This is a remarkable offer by a gas utility, essentially offering people to quit being customers and paying them to do it…it’s a green light to a wider commencement of an immediate energy transition.

(Note: as of this writing that commitment is unconfirmed, though the utility is distributing electric space heaters and hot plates)

Natural Gas Vs. Electricity

If you caught that thing about “immediate energy transition,” that’s the key to the whole issue.

Natural gas used to be considered a cleaner, more sustainable alternative to coal and petroleum, but evidence is building that methane leakage from the supply chain — drilling sites, pipelines, storage facilities and distribution networks — contributes to global warming. That’s on top of local impacts related to drilling and wastewater disposal including air pollution, water contamination and other water resource issues, and yes, earthquakes.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at that new AGA report. Actually, let’s turn to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which picked apart the report in a recent blog post titled, “Why AGA Gets Electrification Wrong.”

NRDC zeroes in on the report’s “extreme” policy-driven scenario, in which the rush to electrification leads to national legislation banning the sale of new non-electric space heaters and water heaters by 2023.

That’s actually not so far-fetched, at least not in concept. The federal government has a hand in all kinds of requirements and standards for energy use in various products, from automobiles to light bulbs.

NRDC, though, argues that a ban on non-electric heaters is highly unlikely. No such proposal is winding its way through Congress, and state or local policies are not heading in that direction, either.

Instead, NRDC argues, the policy winds are blowing more at the carrot than the stick. The organization cites its own decarbonization study, which focuses on “updates to building codes and energy efficiency program designs that would remove regulatory barriers to smart, beneficial electrification.”

NRDC also notes that other electricity stakeholders are heading along a similar track, including the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Then there’s this observation by NRDC:

…The National Rural Electric Cooperative and the Regulatory Assistance Project have put forward the concept of “beneficial electrification,” which can serve the public interest by minimizing consumer costs, facilitating a more modern and integrated electric grid, and reducing carbon and conventional air pollution.

What Is The Regulatory Assistance Project?

All in all, it seems that natural gas stakeholders shouldn’t waste their time worrying about a ban on non-electric heaters and other appliances.

The real thing for natural gas stakeholders to worry about is the growing amount of research-driven firepower that will accelerate climate action at the expense of natural gas.

The Regulatory Assistance Project, for example, has been tackling the challenges of global decarbonization from a holistic perspective, including economic justice issues related to poverty and energy access.

Here in the US, the Rocky Mountain Institute is also gearing up for the gas-to-electric transition with a new initiative, building on lessons learned from the success of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

CleanTechnica caught wind of one particularly promising strategy during a previous interview with RMI Senior Fellow Bruce Nilles. He noted that one big obstacle is the lack of incentives for gas-to-electric conversions…

…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.

…but he also indicated that electric utilities could become powerful allies, as they seek opportunities to grow within their existing territories.

By the way, did you know that there is an Electricity Policy Technical Assistance Program in the US Department of Energy?

There is! The program was established back in 2003 to meet the “continuing need for information and education about electricity opportunities and options, especially due to the ever-changing dynamics of the electricity system.”

The office is set up to provide objective inputs for policy makers:

For example, evaluation of new technologies for electric generation, transmission, distribution, and end-uses requires independent and unbiased information on cost and performance to augment the information that policy makers already receive.

Well said! The program works on an as-requested basis to assist states, regions and Native American Tribes.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to the office to see what kinds of requests they’ve been fielding these days, so stay tuned for more on that.

Meanwhile, earlier this year the Department of Energy announced a new $34 million round of funding for technology improvements that dovetail with the approach to electrification advocated by organizations like NRDC and RMI.

Some of the monies are earmarked for improving efficiency in fuel-driven equipment including natural gas, but the bulk is going to broader research that accelerates the next generation of energy-efficient buildings — including windows, insulation and, of course, lighting.

Image (screenshot): via “An Electrifying Transition: Electrification Barriers and Opportunities” workshop, US DOE Better Buildings Solution Center.

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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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