Cutting Emissions, Protecting Customers
The following is the sixth part of an eight-part series to dive deeper into the eight key takeaways from the Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities report. If you are interested in the full report, you can learn more at https://www.aga.org/netzero.
In February 2022, the American Gas Association (AGA) released a bold vision for the future that details how America’s natural gas, natural gas utilities and delivery infrastructure are essential to meeting our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. Building on the industry’s ambitious Climate Change Position Statement from January 2020, Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities presents a national-level approach that leverages the unique advantages of gas technologies and distribution infrastructure.
Several modeled pathways are analyzed to underscore the range of scenarios and technology opportunities available as the nation, regions, states and communities develop and implement emissions reduction plans. The study details eight key findings including:
Continued utilization of natural gas and the vast utility delivery infrastructure can increase the likelihood of successfully reaching net-zero targets while minimizing customer impacts.
Natural gas and natural gas distribution infrastructure have structural and technological benefits that could help to lower carbon emissions quickly using existing technologies and investments. Any pathway to net-zero emissions on the national level would require transformative changes to multiple energy systems and the economy. When attempting to effect massive, systemic change, all advantages available should be utilized. America’s gas distribution infrastructure is one such advantage. American natural gas pipelines have a total value in the hundreds of billions of dollars. How can this infrastructure provide unique advantages for efforts to decarbonize the economy?
Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is a battle against the clock. We should use our gas infrastructure to achieve immediate emissions reductions. Switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 54 percent. Fifty-four percent is an excellent improvement, but it’s also just the start. Direct use of natural gas is where gas really comes into its own as a low-carbon fuel. When fuel is converted to electricity, only about 36 percent of the source energy makes it to the customer. For the direct use of natural gas, however, 91 percent of the source energy is delivered successfully. That’s part of why an Energy Star natural gas household could have a carbon footprint that is 19 percent lower than an Energy Star heat pump household, and 64 percent lower in emissions than a household with an electrical resistance furnace. As gas heat pumps increasingly hit the market, this gap in favor of gas could grow.
Immediate carbon savings are important. What advantages can our gas distribution infrastructure offer in the longer term? Every single inch of gas pipeline in the United States can be used to transport carbon-neutral renewable natural gas (RNG). This green fuel can be used for everything that geologic natural gas is used for. Existing appliances require no updates to work with RNG and increasing amounts of RNG will likely be incorporated into our gas distribution system going forward. RNG could play a major role in any attempts to quickly and reliably decarbonize our economy.
RNG isn’t the only promising fuel. Let’s talk about green hydrogen. Carbon-neutral green hydrogen produced using electrolysis can be incorporated into existing infrastructure, although infrastructure upgrades will likely be required to blend in higher percentages of hydrogen. The real advantage hydrogen brings to the gas distribution system is energy storage. America’s gas distribution system is the world’s largest battery, approximately 2.6 million miles long. Traditional lithium battery storage is workable for storing energy for up to four hours. Green hydrogen can be stored indefinitely without the energy being lost. If green hydrogen is used as an energy storage system, the existing salt caves currently used for natural gas storage, that require no exotic and expensive minerals, and can be dispatched for seasonal demand peaks, or in response to extreme weather events can be used for hydrogen.
Gas infrastructure isn’t just a critical tool for decarbonization – it’s also one of the best tools available to help keep customer costs down. The Department of Energy projects that natural gas will be between half and one-third the price of other fuels through 2050. Natural gas as a residential fuel is projected to remain less than a third of the cost of electricity through that same time frame. The low cost of natural gas has saved families a total of $140 billion over the past decade and has saved businesses half a trillion dollars during that same time frame. A gas-using household saves an average of $1,041 per year compared to all-electric homes. Customers shouldn’t have to choose between mitigating climate change and affordability. Natural gas and gas distribution infrastructure can help to ensure we can have both.
We cannot and should not give up any tools in our efforts to mitigate climate change. This infrastructure has the potential to help achieve transformative change in our energy system. We cannot afford to neglect it.