- As utilities in the Pacific Northwest begin to grapple with the implications of decarbonizing the built environment, questions around affordability — and the role of natural gas in a transitioning energy system — continue to be front of mind.
- Puget Sound Energy (PSE) President and CEO Mary Kipp believes that because of the time it takes to build new transmission and deploy other resources, the utility needs to use its existing natural gas infrastructure in the near term. "And I wasn't always a believer in that," Kipp said at a panel Tuesday, "so it's actually taken me looking at quite a bit of data to come to that conclusion."
- But some clean energy advocates have different recommendations. All-electric new construction is hands down more economic than mixed fuel construction, Stephanie Greene, senior principal at RMI, said at the panel. "And so all-electric new construction would be a wonderful way to start ensuring that the system becomes more affordable for customers."
The discussion around building electrification comes just weeks after the Pacific Northwest experienced a heatwave that broke temperature records and pushed utilities to urge energy conservation and in some cases, experience outages, this summer. Experts say the increasing temperatures will pose challenges for energy system planning, which is largely based on historical experience.
At the same time, utilities are also facing the prospect of widespread decarbonization of infrastructure, including buildings — one of the topics of a recent panel discussion at the Smart Buildings Exchange conference. One key issue surrounds implementing that transition while also maintaining affordability.
PSE commissioned a study on the best way to decarbonize while taking into account affordability, reliability and speed, and came to the conclusion that this would involve utilizing the existing pipeline system for natural gas, as well as the workforce who have the skills to maintain it, Kipp said. When it comes to electrifying heating appliances, Kipp sees potential in the near term for a hybrid heat pump system. Heat pumps work very well down to about 35 degrees, she said, so on very cold days, the utility can continue using the gas system, and possibly eventually transition to a hydrogen blend system.
"And maybe even eventually beyond that, we're able to get enough energy — whether it's through building additional transmission lines ... to take advantage of the big renewable resources there — we're able to become more efficient, have our buildings be more responsive, and maybe eventually we don't need [the gas system]," she said.
Maintaining climate affordability and equity is a tricky balance, Ed Schlect, vice president and chief strategy officer at Avista, agreed.
"We believe that electricity and natural gas work together in a complementary way today, and it's going to take dramatic changes in technology to change that story from an affordability perspective for our customers," Schlect said, adding that an all-electric approach would require tremendous multiples of capital investment in infrastructure.
But RMI's Greene sees the potential for electric heat pumps to present a more economic option for customers.
Heat pumps can function as both air conditioners and space heaters, she said, and as more people look to add air conditioning in light of the recent heat wave in Washington, "customers should be adopting heat pumps, and that's more economic for them than it is to install an air conditioner and to have a gas furnace," she said.
Greene also sees the need for small quantities of renewable natural gas and hydrogen on the system, but cautioned that there is a limited supply of renewable natural gas across the nation and that should be reserved for the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors, like replacing jet fuel in the aviation industry.
More broadly, repurposing gas pipelines is a costly proposition, according to Greene.
"We believe instead that you all should look at how do you repurpose your business model to manage that transition, and then to invest in the technologies that we do need for this future — because there are so many, and so much of your capital assets could be used toward those technologies," she said.