- Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), the largest gas utility in the country, announced Tuesday that it is aiming to ensure its operations and energy deliveries reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, the same year California is looking to entirely decarbonize its electricity.
- Technologies like renewable natural gas (RNG), hydrogen and carbon capture could play a role in getting SoCalGas to that goal, CEO Scott Drury told reporters on Tuesday. "It's our view that as we decarbonize California, the infrastructure that we have in place will be an essential tool to ensure that energy stays not only clean, [but] safe, reliable and resilient," he added.
- Some stakeholders, however, are skeptical about the utility's plan. "Any gas company that's serious about climate change and keeping energy affordable for customers needs to be planning to contract their footprint between now and 2045, and there's nothing in their plan about reducing costs," Merrian Borgeson, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said.
SoCalGas plans to spend more than $2 billion on modernizing its infrastructure over the next half decade, in part to help decarbonize its business. The utility believes that its existing infrastructure could play a key role in California's broader clean energy trajectory by providing continuous sources of energy to customers and storing renewable energy for long periods of time, even months.
The company is exploring multiple paths to get to that goal, including RNG and hydrogen, according to Drury. However, he did not rule out the possibility that there might still be some natural gas in the utility's portfolio by 2045, noting that SoCalGas hasn't completed its modelling and it's hard to predict with certainty exactly what the fuel mix will look like in 2045.
"But the value of the gas infrastructure to managing the volatility in … electricity demand is going to be incredibly important and of course our goal will be to meet that with all of the decarbonized fuels and clean gases we can — but it is quite possible, and some might say likely, that there will be some level of natural gas in that broad energy portfolio," Drury said.
SoCalGas is on track to achieve 5% RNG to core customers by 2022, and is now aiming to increase that number to 20% by the end of the decade. On the hydrogen front, it's working on a "hydrogen home" demonstration project — which will convert solar power into hydrogen that can then be either stored, blended into the gas grid or used as electricity for the home via a fuel cell — as well as conducting research with an eye to increase hydrogen blending to 20%.
Another possible strategy is carbon capture technologies.
"I don't think that we're advanced enough in our particular work to give you a sense or order of magnitude of that, but … I don't think that there's anything that we should eliminate as a potential tool for decarbonizing the state or the country," Drury said.
The utility has outlined some interim goals along the way. By 2025, for instance, it wants to ensure that all its newly constructed buildings are 100% net-zero energy, and establish statewide hydrogen blending standards.
Some groups, however, worry that SoCalGas' plan to decarbonize its system is unrealistic. NRDC estimates that there may be enough biomethane to replace 3% to 7% of existing fossil fuel gas use in the U.S., NRDC's Borgeson said, and that should be focused on hard-to-electrify sectors instead of being piped to buildings. And while converting electricity to fuels like hydrogen could have a lot of potential at the system level, she isn't convinced that it's a good solution for homes, she said.
"I think their hydrogen home … with all the different features they put there, is probably the single most expensive way to have a zero-emissions home that I can possibly imagine," she added.
One concern around hydrogen is whether the existing natural gas system is equipped to handle it, according to Borgeson. The CPUC is currently looking at that issue, but the state's utilities have said they don't know enough to suggest a hydrogen injection standard yet.
"If it were to be 100% hydrogen, I think you need a new pipe," she said, adding that upgrading the current system to pipes that could handle high volumes of hydrogen would be a massive investment.
There are also questions around whether solutions like hydrogen and RNG can scale up at the rate needed to have a meaningful impact on SoCalGas' climate contributions, said Lila Holzman, a senior energy program manager with As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy non-profit.
"RNG, for instance, is in limited supply and might be needed for other sectors that are harder to decarbonize, like industry or transportation — so use of RNG for buildings … might not be the best, most cost-effective use for that resource," said Holzman.
But SoCalGas' Drury said he's "quite impressed with the development of the RNG portfolio to date."
"It's not that many years ago that there was no RNG — today, we expect to be at 5% by 2022," he said, adding that there are roughly 157 RNG projects currently active in California.
Matt Vespa, staff attorney with Earthjustice, said in an email that SoCalGas' commitment is an "empty pledge."
"The fundamentals are that the potential of both renewable natural gas and hydrogen pipeline injection are extremely limited and California will only meet its climate objectives through widespread electrification of gas end uses like space and water heating. Until SoCalGas stops obstructing progress on reducing reliance on fossil fuels though electrification, its climate pledges ring hollow," Vespa added.