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How California’s Climate Policies Are Impacting “Clean” Natural Gas

There’s a lot of talk about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions these days. California is working hard to limit them, with an eventual goal of providing carbon-free electricity by 2045. 

As part of this movement, several cities have placed outright bans on natural gas, and building codes are slowly starting to encourage builders to eliminate it from new construction entirely. The question is why and why now? 

After all, natural gas is "the clean alternative" to coal. When burned in an efficient, clean power plant, gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal.  The switch to natural gas has played a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. In April of 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency released a comprehensive report on GHG emissions in the US. The report shows that from 2005 to 2018, total GHG emissions fell by 12 percent, even as our economy grew by 25 percent. The majority of these reductions are due to the conversion to natural gas over coal, primarily in electricity generation. 

So, shouldn't we be celebrating the transition from coal to "clean" natural gas rather than trying to eliminate its use? Why exactly is California marching toward a future that regulates natural gas out of our buildings and homes? To understand what is behind this trend, we need to dig a bit further.

RPS in CA

SB 100, the most important recent California GHG legislation, aims to make the state's electricity generation 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. In order to move toward this goal, utilities are required through the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to generate a certain percentage of their electricity through renewable sources. Over the years, this percentage is set to increase. The chart above shows the progress of these standards and what impact they might have moving forward. Moving toward 100 percent carbon free electricity means that, at the very least, utilities will have to phase out natural gas generation in the coming years.

When California first set the SB 100 standards several years ago, they were considered necessary but aggressive goals that would be difficult to achieve. What’s impressive is how fast we are moving towards or exceeding these targets today. For example, the RPS goals hoped to achieve 30 percent generation from renewable sources by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030. Today, renewable generation is over 44 percent, well above the 2020 target. If you are curious, you can monitor renewable production in real-time by checking  "today's outlook” on the Caiso website. 

The takeaway from this is that the pace and contribution of renewable generation is currently outpacing even the most optimistic predictions of just a few short years ago. We are far ahead of the policymakers’ goals, and the grid is getting “cleaner” every day. 

The primary driver of these improvements is the reduced cost of renewable energy. Wind energy and solar have seen dramatic cost reductions. Widespread adoption of these technologies and advances in design and production have reduced costs across the board. In 2020, renewables have crossed the threshold and are now the lowest-cost energy source worldwide. The naysayers have long predicted that clean energy would bankrupt the country and cost thousands of jobs. The reality is the development and production of these technologies is a booming industry and will create millions of jobs. 

But even if utilities are phasing natural gas out as a source of electrical generation, why is it necessary to restrict or eliminate its direct use in residential buildings? 

GHG emission sources

While it might be surprising to many, it turns out that buildings are the fourth largest source of GHG emissions in the United States. The reality is heating and cooling buildings consumes vast amounts of energy. 

California in particular relies heavily on natural gas to heat water and spaces, especially for residential buildings -- residential consumption is the single largest use of natural gas in the state.

US GHG emissions

As the chart above shows, burning natural gas to meet thermal (heating) loads is also by far the largest source residential GHG emissions as well. 

If we continue to rely on combustion to make heat, we continue to rely on "dirty" fossil fuels. We can burn cleaner fuels, such as renewable natural gas (RNG), synthetic natural gas, or biofuels, and reduce emissions. However, these are costly and can't ramp up fast enough to meet current demands. There is a role in the future for renewable natural gas and other combustion-based solutions, but they don't make sense in residential applications when we have other readily available options. The smartest minds in the industry suggest we should save RNG for applications that are not well suited to electrification.

Given our carbon reduction goals, it simply doesn’t make sense to continue to rely on natural gas as the preferred way to heat homes when we have readily available electric solutions that don't rely on combustion and are much more efficient than their gas counterparts. These solutions are more reliable, safer, and on par with gas in cost. For example, electric heat pumps, which can supply heat for the home and provide hot water, are 4 to 5 times as efficient as gas, and they don't rely on combustion to make heat. A homeowner can even generate the electricity to run them on-site with solar panels.

Fossil fuels like natural gas, by comparison, are a limited resource. They are dangerous to deliver, and when consumed, they produce greenhouse gas emissions and combustion byproducts, such as carbon monoxide. There are other concerns related to natural gas. Recent studies have demonstrated a direct connection between cooking with natural gas and adverse health conditions, such as asthma and other respiratory problems. 

Leaks are also a big deal. Studies have determined that methane leaks during the transmission and distribution of natural gas are significant source of GHG emissions. When scientists measured leaks in the distribution system, they found levels nearly double their predictions. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas and is several times more damaging to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

Finally, the natural gas distribution system in Califonia is old and reaching the end of its useful life. Leaks in the system are accidents waiting to happen. If we continue to rely on natural gas, the providers will need to update and replace much of the infrastructure. The cost of these upgrades will eventually increase the price of natural gas for consumers. Ignoring the aging infrastructure is an even greater risk. Every year people in California die from natural gas explosions. We should not rely on explosive and dangerous energy sources in our homes.

When you look at the big picture, it becomes evident that we need to transition residential energy use away from the combustion of fossil fuels to the cleanest source of energy we have, which is electricity. We have cleaner, safer, time-tested electric technologies, including heat pumps and induction cooking, that can serve all residential applications.  

California imports the majority of its natural gas from other states. By contrast, electricity from renewable generation is local, it's safer, and it is getting cheaper every day. 

California's clean energy future will not rely on fossil fuels. We need to embrace the electrification of buildings statewide. Renewable, sustainable choices are here, and it is time to support their adoption.

Charley Cormany

Executive Director

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