Opinion: The case for renewable gas in a clean energy future, not just electricity

Jul 18 2022, 11:52 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Joe Mazza, who is the vice-president of energy supply and resource development for FortisBC.

The provincial government’s CleanBC Roadmap sets ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets including a cap on natural gas utilities.

Reducing emissions has always been top of mind for us at FortisBC, both through an ever-increasing focus on energy efficiency and since 2011, introducing North America’s first Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) program.

Renewable and low carbon gases are an important cornerstone of a low carbon economy and help abate emissions across the whole value chain. Their use is essential if we are to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in multiple sectors, including buildings, industry, and transportation.

Today, we are delivering more RNG than ever as we continue to rapidly bring on more supply. However, as we continue to invest in growing our renewable and low carbon gas supply, critics and advocates for an electric-only energy system maintain that gas is the problem. But gas, as an energy form, is not the issue. The issue is carbon.

When we can address carbon emissions by using gas energy from a renewable and low carbon gas supply, we are able to present an affordable and attainable option for British Columbians to fight climate change. So the answer is not phasing out the gas system or limiting its ability to operate by preventing further gas connections, but it is about ensuring that the system carries progressively cleaner energy.

To do that, we need to start having discussions that acknowledge the complexity of the issue and the need for science and evidence-based solutions. From studies conducted here in BC to those conducted by the International Energy Agency, it is acknowledged that gas, specifically renewable and low carbon gas, is key to a lower-carbon energy future and is one of the most expedient ways to affect rapid decarbonization.

Gas can help solve greenhouse gas emissions. Every gigajoule (GJ) of RNG replaces the equivalent amount of natural gas and keeps more carbon underground while still providing the benefits of a flexible, energy-dense gas system. Importantly, RNG is a recognized compliance pathway by the BC Government and helps the province meet its CleanBC targets.

Our province is rich in diverse energy resources and energy infrastructure, including a resilient, reliable gas system that is complementary to the electricity system.

Delivering power only through poles and wires, which are subject to extreme weather, leaves us with a suboptimal system, while we abandon billions of dollars worth of piped infrastructure that could be delivering clean energy.

From a system perspective, renewable and low-carbon gas makes use of a high-performing, extensive system worth billions of dollars, saving ratepayers money from having to rebuild that same capacity on electric systems. With the cost pressures facing British Columbians, we think families expect utility providers to decarbonize as cost-effectively as possible. From an individual sense, using a drop-in solution like RNG makes a difference without undergoing costly retrofitting that many can’t afford.

RNG has huge decarbonization potential. We are growing it exponentially every year. In 2022, FortisBC expects more than triple its supply with a projected 3.9 petajoules (PJ) of expected annual RNG supply. This is roughly enough energy to meet the natural gas needs of approximately 43,350 homes in BC (according to the average annual consumption of 90 GJ per year).

The potential in the province for renewable and low carbon gases is massive. A recent study commissioned by FortisBC, the provincial government, and the BC Bioenergy Network revealed that by 2050, renewable and low-carbon gases could provide as much as 440 PJ per year — roughly double what currently flows through our current gas system. Hydrogen has the largest supply potential in the province; it can leverage both BC’s low-carbon electricity grid and its natural gas reserves to produce both carbon-free and low-carbon hydrogen gas that can significantly reduce the carbon intensity of our gas infrastructure. Recently, we announced our first hydrogen pilot project with Suncor Energy and Hazer Group Limited which brings new technology to the province to produce clean-burning hydrogen from natural gas.

Electricity supply would be hard pressed to grow at the same pace. Hydroelectric facilities take years to gain approval and several more to construct. Rapid electrification would be incredibly challenging from a supply perspective without the gas system able to backstop its progress.

We can move forward with new RNG supply more quickly and given the ambition from the province for rapid decarbonization, that is important.

Also, many of our new RNG sources are carbon negative, and with innovation and technology, we are looking for ways to increasingly go below zero on carbon intensity, something the electric system is not designed to do.

As a utility that also delivers clean hydroelectricity, we see the value of a decarbonized gas system working alongside the electric system as these systems work in concert to provide energy security that meets all of the needs of British Columbians.

We have the infrastructure that is bought and paid for and available today to deliver low-carbon energy to homes and businesses.

We are working hard to increase supply to eventually one day in the future be able to deliver 100% renewable gas to our customers. This is not just a “pipe” dream, it is a reality that is already flowing through our system. It cannot happen overnight, but the change is happening now and the potential is there.

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