Mike Henchen, RMI, Jan 6, 2020
Tackling fossil fuels in buildings has become a hot topic in climate policy, and not a moment too soon. Given the global imperative to slash carbon emissions across all sectors in the next decade, local leaders are realizing they need to address the prevalence of fossil fuels, primarily gas, used for heating and cooking in millions of homes and buildings.
The first step in solving this problem is understanding it. Today, Rocky Mountain Institute is launching a new tool to accomplish just that. The Impact of Fossil Fuels in Buildings: A Fact Base is a cross-cutting database illustrating the source and impact of direct building emissions across the country.
While the transition to cleaner, healthier all-electric buildings is a national imperative, the extent of the problem varies state by state. Use our interactive website to isolate your state and see how the following factors have changed over time: emissions from buildings, primary fuel sources, miles of gas mains, proportion of all-electric homes, and more.
Several cities from California to Massachusetts have already taken steps to phase out fossil fuels in buildings, with more expected next year. Our hope is that this resource can provide local leaders and residents with the information they need to mitigate the health, safety, and climate risks of burning fossil fuels in buildings.
Gas bans are a strong start to tackling emissions in the built environment, but for many states leading the way on climate they might not be enough. Furthermore, the U.S. gas distribution system is getting older – and fixing millions of miles of gas infrastructure is expensive. Learn more about how building electrification provides a solution here.
New York Times | Mike Baker As a progressive-minded city nestled where the Cascade mountains reach the sea, Bellingham, Wash., has long been looking to scale back its contribution to climate change. In recent years, city leaders have converted the streetlights to low-power LEDs, provided bikes for city employees and made plans to halt the burning of sewage solids. But while the efforts so far have lowered the city’s emissions, none have come close to erasing its carbon footprint. Now, Bellingham is looking to do something that no other city has yet attempted: adopt a ban on all residential heating by natural gas. The ambitious plan set for consideration by the City Council in the coming weeks had already prompted vigorous debate over how much one small city should try to do to avert climate catastrophe, at a time when the federal government was putting less emphasis on halting the trajectory of rising temperatures. “What we’ve got here is a conversation that is taking place in living rooms, in board rooms, in City Councils around the country,” said Michael Lilliquist, a Bellingham council member. “What is the proportionate threat? What is the proportionate response?” Natural gas has long been embraced as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity. Years ago, power companies began phasing out coal, and natural gas emerged as the nation’s leading source of electricity. But natural gas offers its own troubling contribution of greenhouse gases — including methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure — and its production has begun to clash with environmental goals that now include not only cleaning up pollution, but also slowing the rise in global temperatures.
By Mike Baker
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — As a progressive-minded city nestled where the Cascade mountains reach the sea, Bellingham, Wash., has long been looking to scale back its contribution to climate change. In recent years, city leaders have converted the streetlights to low-power LEDs, provided bikes for city employees and made plans to halt the burning of sewage solids.
But while the efforts so far have lowered the city’s emissions, none have come close to erasing its carbon footprint. Now, Bellingham is looking to do something that no other city has yet attempted: adopt a ban on all residential heating by natural gas.
The ambitious plan set for consideration by the City Council in the coming weeks had already prompted vigorous debate over how much one small city should try to do to avert climate catastrophe, at a time when the federal government was putting less emphasis on halting the trajectory of rising temperatures.
“What we’ve got here is a conversation that is taking place in living rooms, in board rooms, in City Councils around the country,” said Michael Lilliquist, a Bellingham council member. “What is the proportionate threat? What is the proportionate response?”
Natural gas has long been embraced as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity. Years ago, power companies began phasing out coal, and natural gas emerged as the nation’s leading source of electricity. But natural gas offers its own troubling contribution of greenhouse gases — including methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure — and its production has begun to clash with environmental goals that now include not only cleaning up pollution, but also slowing the rise in global temperatures.
In places like the Northwest, which benefits from a robust network of hydro-powered electricity, the move to detach from natural gas may be within reach — but at a cost.
Bellingham has become a growing destination for those looking to escape Seattle’s growth and cost while still wanting a similar base of progressive politics and environmental activism. It is a destination for outdoor enthusiasts who backpack the wilderness of the northern Cascades and kayak along the barnacled shores of the San Juan Islands.
Yet the move to phase out natural gas is not without opponents, even here.
The business community has mobilized to fight the plan and to establish a $1 million campaign to tout natural gas, especially as Seattle, 85 miles south, also begins discussions about its reliance on the fossil fuel.
Berkeley and Beyond
Along with other cities around the world, Bellingham adopted its first climate action plan more than a decade ago. Since then, the city has reported a substantial drop in emissions — eliminating more than two-thirds of the government’s greenhouse gas contributions compared to the year 2000.
Mr. Lilliquist said the city’s plans had put it on a path to carbon neutrality — zero net emissions — by 2050. While those plans may have seemed ambitious at the time, the unfolding global climate crisis has prompted city leaders since then to try to move the timeline up to 2035 or even 2030.
Last year, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the country to ban natural gas in newly constructed low-rise residential buildings. Dozens of other cities passed or proposed similar bans, including Seattle, where an increasing number of new homes have adopted electric heat. Proponents there argued that a ban on natural gas in new construction would lower the city’s emissions by an estimated 12 percent over the coming three decades. The City Council had not yet acted on the measure.
Bellingham is talking about going even further: banning natural gas heating not only in new construction but also in existing homes and businesses.
The city’s climate task force explored a number of ambitious targets, including requiring conversions to electric heating when people purchased existing homes, said Dr. Charles Barnhart, a task force member and an assistant professor of environmental sciences at Bellingham’s Western Washington University, which has one of the nation’s oldest environmental colleges. It also explored requiring transitions on all structures as soon as 2030.
In the end, the task force scaled back a bit. Natural gas cooking appliances would still be allowed, but owners of homes and commercial buildings would be required to convert to electric heat-pump technology — or something equivalent — by 2040, with the possibility that the city could accelerate that to 2035. The measure under consideration would require electric heat conversions earlier than that when replacing heating systems.
“This is about going to where we didn’t go before,” Mr. Lilliquist said. “We’ve grabbed the less controversial and low-hanging fruit. This fruit is higher on the tree.”
It is unclear whether the proposal has enough votes to clear the City Council. Mr. Lilliquist said he would first seek a series of meetings to get feedback from the public.
Opponents have questioned the value of focusing on home heating systems instead of other alternatives for reducing emissions.
Todd Myers, who focuses on environmental issues at the conservative Washington Policy Center, said the city could get much more climate improvement by investing in things like planting trees and capturing methane gas at landfills.
“They are saying we are going to bypass all the low-hanging fruit and climb to the very top of the tree,” Mr. Myers said.
A $1 Million Campaign
Bellingham’s task force found that the average cost of installing an electric heat pump system was about $6,200 to $13,100 more than a gas furnace.
Ronald Scott Colson, a financial adviser who lives outside of Bellingham, said he had been converting to electric heat to fulfill his commitment to migrating the planet away from fossil fuels.
Mr. Colson said he had spent about $28,000 to install a forced-air heat pump system in 2018. He is looking to spend about $8,000 to change the heating for his home’s hot water to heat pump technology. With human life on Earth at risk, Mr. Colson said, the globe needs catalysts for significant change.
“You’ve got to have a place where people step up and say, ‘Let’s show the world we can do it,’” Mr. Colson said.
But Mr. Colson also acknowledged that such a conversion might be a heavy burden for those who did not have as much income. Without federal tax credits or other ways to offset the cost for lower-income people, he wondered if a local mandate might have negative impacts.
Mary Kay Robinson, a real-estate agent who works with the local chamber of commerce, said that instead of a natural gas ban, she would like to see the city expand a program that helped people assess their properties for energy efficiency improvements and offered incentives to make needed changes. She said a mandate to convert home heating systems could create housing affordability challenges.
“What does that do other than we get bragging rights, but we’re burdening people who can’t afford this?” Ms. Robinson said.
The energy industry has also stepped up efforts. A Northwest coalition has been organizing a $1 million public-relations campaign to promote the benefits of natural gas, with a focus on its reliability. One graphic produced by businesses including Cascade Natural Gas, the provider in Bellingham, suggested that a full conversion from natural gas to electricity, including solar panels, could cost a typical homeowner as much as $82,750, something Mr. Lilliquist labeled propaganda intended to frighten people.
Still, Mr. Lilliquist said that as council members considered the conversion proposals in the coming weeks, they would have a discussion about incentives or other ways to mitigate costs, which he said would almost surely be less exorbitant than the industry’s claims.
“The real number may be one-tenth that cost, but that’s still a lot of money for most households,” he added.
Drilling DeeperNatural gas and climate changeIt’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace. We Made It Visible.Dec. 12, 2019Natural Gas Boom Fizzles as a U.S. Glut Sinks ProfitsDec. 11, 2019Despite Their Promises, Giant Energy Companies Burn Away Vast Amounts of Natural GasOct. 16, 2019
Excerpt: “This process is already playing out in Illinois. The state recently approved Peoples Gas’ massive infrastructure replacement plan, which entails replacing all of the gas pipes that run under the city of Chicago. By the time the work is finished in 2040, hundreds of thousands of customers could be paying $750 a year for the replacement effort, a report found. Peoples Gas says the entire project could end up costing between $8 billion and $11 billion. This total cost will be between $11,000 and $16,000 per customer served by Peoples Gas.”
A New Approach to America’s Rapidly Aging Gas Infrastructure
January 6, 2020
Spending on America’s Gas Systems Has Grown Dramatically in Recent Years
Across the United States, the utilities that provide natural gas to homes and businesses have rapidly increased total spending, tripling from roughly $5 billion per year to $15 billion between 2009 and 2017, according to data from the American Gas Association.
Many factors have contributed to this increase, including investments in automation and improved inspection capabilities. The rate at which old pipes are replaced with new pipes has also increased, continuing investment in new assets expected to be in service well beyond the timeframe of mid-century greenhouse gas commitments which may require their retirement.
Despite these increases in spending, America’s gas infrastructure is getting older. As RMI’s new analysis, The Impact of Burning Fossil Fuels in Buildings, shows, in 2004, the average gas main (the gas pipes running under city streets) in service was 28.1 years old. By 2018, that had increased to 33.8 years old. A quarter of active gas mains are more than 50 years old. One out of every four miles of gas mains in Massachusetts was installed before 1940. A Chicago pipe just retired this year had been in operation since 1859.
Age is just one factor gas utilities consider when planning gas main replacement projects – other factors such as pipe material can be more critical – but the increased spending on an aging system does call into question the wisdom of doubling down on a fossil fuel delivery network that’s becoming more expensive at the same time the need for climate action is becoming more urgent.
Greater recognition of methane leakage has also drawn attention to the challenges of operating an aging system. Research released earlier this year found that in six major US cities—Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; New York City; Providence; and Boston—methane leaks are more than twice US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. Likewise, high profile gas explosions have driven urgent projects to replace older pipes, as in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, where 45 miles of pipe were rapidly replacedin 2018 following a series of explosions.
Spending More to Replace Leaky and Older Pipes Would Be an Expensive Solution
While it may be tempting to throw more money at this problem, we quite simply can’t spend our way out of this one. In places like Massachusetts, with a disproportionately high share of the nation’s older and leak-prone pipe, public policy already supports “accelerated” pipe replacement, but utility programs will take decades longer and cost billions of dollars. With the American Gas Association reporting that annual spending on the gas distribution system has already increased from around $5 billion to $15 billion over 10 years, further acceleration of pipe replacement would be extremely expensive and likely insufficient.
Abundant supply has kept gas prices low, but that disguises the long-term costs that continue to accrue from increasingly expensive gas infrastructure. And because gas utility customers are typically on the hook for infrastructure investments, it’s these customers who will bear the costs—either of continued increase in long term pipe replacement needs, or of attempts to accelerate massive new investment programs.
This process is already playing out in Illinois. The state recently approved Peoples Gas’ massive infrastructure replacement plan, which entails replacing all of the gas pipes that run under the city of Chicago. By the time the work is finished in 2040, hundreds of thousands of customers could be paying $750 a year for the replacement effort, a report found. Peoples Gas says the entire project could end up costing between $8 billion and $11 billion. This total cost will be between $11,000 and $16,000 per customer served by Peoples Gas.
Transitioning Off Gas Altogether Offers a Path to Retiring Old Gas Mains Consistent with Climate Goals
Not only are main replacement and other gas system investments a significant financial burden that will take decades to complete, but doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure is also entirely incompatible with climate change goals. Several of the states with the oldest gas infrastructure also have ambitious emissions reduction targets, meaning they need to be working swiftly to reduce fossil fuel use and the associated emissions.
Instead of continuing to invest in pipe replacement and other gas assets, we can set a path toward retiring them altogether. This starts with moving away from burning gas in homes and buildings and transitioning to efficient electric heating, water heating, and cooking. Relying on appliances like heat pumps eliminates the direct greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning gas, and retiring old pipes eliminates methane emissions associated with leaks. Heat pumps also add a new level of comfort, dynamically adjusting heating output in ways gas appliances cannot.
The first step on this path away from fossil fuels in buildings is to stop making the problem worse; in other words, stop constructing new homes and buildings connected to gas. PG&E, in California, became the first gas and electric utility in the U.S. to endorse this perspective earlier this year. PG&E has provided letters of support to 22 cities in Northern California which are considering local building codes that require or preference all-electric new construction starting in 2020. Not only is this critical to meeting climate change targets, it’s also the most cost-effective approach. Previous RMI research found that building new, all-electric homes in four US cities (Houston, Oakland, Providence, and Chicago) is cheaper than building with gas. Analysis from E3 reinforced this conclusion across California, finding that “all-electric new construction is expected to be lower cost than gas-fueled homes that have air conditioning” and that most retrofit scenarios also offer savings. A key reason for these savings is avoiding the cost of building new gas lines to and inside buildings.
As for the vast network of gas assets currently serving existing buildings, there will be opportunities to pursue electrification as an alternative to expensive replacement or other planned projects. In some cases, when all of the customers served by an existing gas asset can switch to electric alternatives to their gas service, the asset can be retired instead of replaced. Locations where significant gas system investments are to be made represent a good starting point for utilities, policymakers, and other stakeholders to target building electrification efforts. Any major gas investment could offer an opportunity to avoid unnecessary spending, and an electrification pathway can be more cost-effective, depending on local system and building factors. In most cases today, gas utilities have an obligation to serve any customer who is able to pay for service, meaning that utilities would have to pursue a voluntary, consensus agreement with all customers in order to retire a shared gas asset. To enable targeted gas retirements at scale, policy and regulatory reform must enable a more straightforward pathway to avoid unnecessary gas expenditures when electrification alternatives are available.
This work is beginning to happen. In California, PG&E’s gas system costs have risen as a result of increased investments in safety, reliability, leak detection, and other efforts to reduce risk and enhance performance over the last decade. As PG&E seeks to balance the need for these investments with the importance of customer affordability, the company has pursued electrification alternatives where doing so was feasible and cost-effective. The most successful efforts have occurred where a small number of customers agreed to convert appliances to electricity resulting in significant cost savings on gas asset expenditures. However, these efforts are not always successful. The economics of fully funding customer electrification with utility funds have not always proved cost-effective, particularly when multiple buildings are served by an asset and the cost of converting all of them exceeds the planned investment. Still, over the past few years, PG&E has avoided several million dollars in gas system expenditures that would otherwise have to be recovered through gas rates and continues to pursue these opportunities.
For this to work at scale, utilities can’t do it on their own. Significant new regulatory and policy changes will be needed, including creating new flexibility in the way utilities account for operational and capital expenditure and establishing new standards for how to fairly compare and allocate the costs of switching off gas vs. those to reinvest in the gas network. Retiring existing gas infrastructure requires current gas customers to forego gas completely; policy and regulatory approaches will be needed to address situations in which electrification offers the most cost-effective pathway and address the risk that individual customer demands for gas could impose excessive system costs compared to alternatives. Additionally, gas-only versus combined gas and electric utilities may need different incentive structures to encourage them to explore alternatives to major gas system investments.
Addressing the vast network of aging gas pipes spanning the US is a daunting prospect, but it also represents a critical opportunity to chart a new course, one that taps into the ever-cheaper supplies of clean energy and eliminates the harmful emissions produced by fossil fuels in buildings – all without sinking billions of dollars into new infrastructure we don’t need.
Accelerating the Electrification of Buildings at e–Lab Accelerator 2019
May 1, 2019
$6800 set up – paint
6 months recurring expenses – $2400
$150 electric month
6 months salary:
A Bridge Backward? The Risky Economics of New Natural Gas Infrastructure in the United States
September 9, 2019