NY - Renewable advocates criticize National Grid's decarbonization plan

Renewable advocates criticize National Grid's decarbonization plan

By Marie J. French

05/13/2019 06:31 PM EDT

ALBANY — Renewable advocates criticized National Grid for its support of a natural gas pipeline and called for a commitment to zero emissions outside a forum convened by the utility on Monday.

National Grid hosted an event focused on strategies to achieve 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050 from 1990 levels at The Jerry, better known as the Albany Capital Center. The utility, which owns a natural gas distribution network in downstate New York and large swaths of upstate, sees accelerated conversions of customers from oil to natural gas as key to achieving that goal.

"We do see a lot of folks using delivered fuels as a source of heat at a much higher carbon intensity, so we do encourage in the short term the conversion of oil to gas," said Cordi O'Hara, the chief operating officer of the U.S. gas business for National Grid. "Clearly, where it's more efficient to do oil to electric in the longer term, people will have to embrace and figure out what's an appropriate price of carbon ... but we do fundamentally believe you should tackle the highest emitting fuels first."

About 40 protesters gathered outside the convention center to oppose the Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline, which Grid supports and has said is needed to avoid a moratorium on new firm service on Long Island.

They also urged adoption of technologies such as geothermal or air source heat pumps instead of switching homes or businesses from one fossil fuel to another, with signs with slogans such as "Heat Pumps Not Pipelines" and "Heat Our Homes Not Our Planet."

"I call on National Grid not to settle for 80 by 50," said Lisa Marshall, with Mothers Out Front. "We need total decarbonization and we need a commitment from every utility."

The title of the utility's plan is somewhat dated, which company officials acknowledged, because New York and other Northeast state policymakers are now eyeing even more aggressive emissions reduction goals. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to make the electric sector carbon neutral by 2040 and ultimately reach zero emissions, while Democratic lawmakers and advocates are targeting eliminating human-caused emissions by 2050 or earlier.

National Grid New York President John Bruckner said the utility is considering how to further reduce emissions and that many of the same issues need to be considered.

"We're moving as expeditiously as possible to obtain zero carbon," he said. "We have to execute on the strategy ... It is about getting people here today, initiating the conversation and creating an environment that that conversation can continue."

Cuomo and his administration have struggled with the role of natural gas in the state's energy mix for both electric generation and heating in the near term. Roughly 60 percent of electricity is generated by gas and about 60 percent of homes rely on gas for heating, with the remainder primarily using higher-emitting fuels such as oil, propane or kerosene.

The governor previously called gas a "bridge" fuel, and the Public Service Commission he exercises outsized control over continues to approve utility rate plans that involve incentives for converting customers from oil to gas.

But his new top energy official, Dale Bryk, has emphasized that the state and advocates should work together to ensure there's no demand for new gas by promoting heat pumps and energy efficiency.

Cuomo has to make a decision on the controversial Williams pipeline by May 16. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is not considering issues around gas demand but instead must focus on the water quality impacts of the pipeline.

National Grid officials made the case at the conference for oil to gas conversions as a net win for the environment. The company has also proposed an expanded geothermal pilot with a focus on customers farther away from existing pipelines.

Bruckner also said that the issue of affordability needs to be considered. Some customers will not choose heat pumps because of the price tag, he said.

"When I think about a customer who wants to convert from oil to natural gas today and it's available, we don't need to build ... and do we want to bypass that opportunity to a solution that our customers will not pay for?" asked Bruckner. "Some of our customers will not make that investment in geothermal today, so do we let them stay on oil?"

While Grid's "80 by 50" report says achieving a midway emissions reduction target of 40 percent by 2030 requires tripling oil-to-gas conversions to eliminate all oil use in the heating sector, Bruckner said that's not likely to happen given the supply constraints on Long Island.

The costs of achieving emissions reduction goals are a concern for utility customers. Mike Mager, with a coalition of large energy users called Multiple Intervenors, said there needs to be a balance and that there are concerns about being competitive with businesses elsewhere.

Mager also said access to natural gas is an economic development issue.

"Decarbonization is important but right now and at least for the foreseeable future there's a pressing need for natural gas," he said. "It's used in many industrial processes, and it's needed for heating."

Rich Berkley, with the Public Utility Law Project, said his group is supportive of the state's environmental goals but he worries about the total cost of these policies and utility programs. Many low and moderate income customers will also not take advantage of incentives for electric vehicles or geothermal, he said.

"They're just going to pay the bills if they can," Berkley said.

Panelists also discussed the opportunity for decarbonizing the gas supply. Renewable natural gas generated from food waste, wastewater, and other sources is seen as an important opportunity by gas utilities and policymakers.

Getting renewable natural gas into the pipeline system or to customers interested in lowering their emissions is still challenging, said Bill Jorgensen, co-founder of Vanguard Renewables. He works on anaerobic digesters in the Northeast.

"Instead of my coming to you and saying I need 'X' to get this done, you understand and agree that we want to make renewable natural gas and you come to me and tell me how you're going to make it take place in six months through your agency," he said. "That's the kind of cooperation that we need ... that will make enormous change."

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