Sunday, September 30, 2018

Natural Gas Swings, Misses Inexorable March to the All-Electric Future

Benefits of Electrification (Credit: US Department of Energy) Click to Enlarge.
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.”

Read more at Natural Gas Swings, Misses Inexorable March to the All-Electric Future

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