Stepping Up the Process of Weaning from Natural Gas

Does the photo below represent a common sight in your neighborhood or along your commute over the past couple of years? Have you gone out for a walk and detected the faint smell of mercaptan – the element added to give natural gas its distinct odor to help in detecting leaks? These are indicators that the pervasive natural gas infrastructure serving countless communities across the US is reaching the end of its useful life… particularly in the Northeast. The major Columbia Gas explosions that stuck the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts in fall of 2018 was one of the loudest wake up calls to this issue.

Natural gas is the pre-eminent fuel of the day and has been for the past three decades. In the 80s and 90s, it was touted as the “Clean Fuel”. It does burn much cleaner than coal or oil, dramatically reducing fuel-based electric power plants’ GHG emissions, while requiring fewer costly pollution controls and maintenance efforts. Natural gas has played a vital transitional role to a cleaner environment and will continue to do so for at least the next decade. But, it is far from a panacea. The imperative to ramp up the process of weaning from it is readily apparent.

Natural gas, or methane (CH4), is the simplest hydrocarbon known to civilization. It also contributes to global warming/climate change 25 times more effectively than Carbon Dioxide (CO2) when released into the atmosphere. It is also notoriously more difficult to contain in comparison, while presenting both a global and local risk (reference Merrimack Valley explosions) when it leaks. Relying on a comparatively centralized network with less redundancy and insufficient alternatives, it is arguably the most vulnerable of our major energy infrastructures, subject to an array of supply chain, transport, and transmission risks as we confront environmental hazards and cyber threats of increasing ferocity.

Addressing this vulnerable resource must be a cornerstone of any climate action and community resilience plan. Fortunately, sound alternatives are emerging. Of course, the advent of low-cost renewable energy sources is rapidly paving the way at the power plant level. Natural gas as a building heating, cooking and industrial process fuel is another matter. On that front, “electrification” presents the clearest path. Here again, the greening of the grid, with low-cost renewables greatly facilitates this transition. At the household level, more efficient induction stove tops and hyper efficient air source heat pumps (and accompanying incentives) are rapidly reducing that barrier by augmenting or replacing natural gas furnaces. At the neighborhood, community, campus and industrial level, geothermal solutions are starting to show promise.

Geothermal heating and cooling, often referred to as ground-source heat pumps, represent a quintessential form of resilience for the energy infrastructure. It is a local and distributed source of heating or cooling. It has been applied at small scale reliably and effectively for decades. However, consistently crossing the threshold of cost-effectiveness has proven elusive for the industry. This landscape is changing through the growing concern about the natural gas infrastructure, technology advancements and collaborative efforts of organizations such as HEET to promote it. Natural gas utilities, such as Eversource and National Grid have launched or are in the process of launching widespread pilot programs to deploy geothermal systems in different towns and settings within their respective territories. This is another area where Beacon Climate is working to facilitate “climate solution” project development. Interested towns, institutions, commercial and industrial entities should feel free to reach out to us.

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