Last year, natural gas utility leaders faced many unknowns amid global electrification and new voluntary utility decarbonization targets. I posited here last spring that voluntary customer programs could play a powerful role for utilities looking to decarbonize natural gas in partnership with their customers. Leading natural gas utilities were "exploring," "considering" and "asking questions" about how voluntary customer programs could contribute to their broader decarbonization strategies.
Today, the picture is so much clearer. More than a dozen programs have been filed and launched in North America, with large and small gas utilities validating the opportunity by offering a variety of program types. A voluntary program—one that allows natural gas customers to pay to address emissions from their gas use—has emerged as one of the most impactful and low-risk steps a gas utility can take today to show meaningful action on decarbonization and serve customer demand for lower-carbon solutions.
Voluntary programs are viable and meaningful, and the time is now to take action. Let's explore why and how to move forward with a voluntary program solution.
Why now? Drivers for action on natural gas decarbonization
As the 2020s roll on and the toll of climate change accelerates, public consciousness and actions are rising along with it.
Stakeholder pressure on gas utilities to decarbonize is mounting following broad media coverage on the impact of methane leakage and legislative bans on gas hookups in new buildings. Simultaneously, commercial energy users are realizing the business imperative brought by climate change and joining the race to decarbonize their own operations. As more companies set net zero goals, their utilities are forced to respond or lose valuable commercial customers.
Finally, while many gas utilities I have spoken to are not perceiving much demand from their residential customers today, data shows that those same customers are increasingly concerned about climate change, and market research we've conducted also suggests strong interest. Residential customers simply assume they don't have a choice to address emissions through their gas provider. Offering them that choice is a strong step toward improved customer engagement and satisfaction.
Minimizing risks, enhancing rewards with voluntary gas programs
A well-designed voluntary program offers minimal risk, and the large handful of gas utility leaders with approved programs have cleared the path for the rest of the industry. While these programs are much newer in a natural gas application, many of the same principles still apply from more than two decades of electric utilities designing and launching green energy programs.
There are three keys to success for a new program:
- Sound program design - the program design process is crucial to determining the right program structure to serve customer demand.
- Fully vetted program supply - for gas utilities climbing the learning curve on RNG and other supply, it's imperative to work with a trusted partner to manage volumetric risk for multi-year terms.
- Strategic implementation - targeting the right customers with the right messages for appropriate costs is key to having an impactful program that meets customer demand.
Take the action that's available today, leaving room for future solutions
Natural gas utilities face a significant challenge to join the wave of global climate action. Newly-set gas utility decarbonization targets vary widely across the industry, and there is no silver bullet to achieve these goals. It will take a variety of tactics, many of which are still nascent. As solutions like hydrogen and rate-based RNG mature, the time is now to pull the levers that are available.
For most North American utilities, developing voluntary customer programs has no impact on the utility's ability to pursue other decarbonization tactics in the future. It will only help maintain the utility-customer relationship and show meaningful action on decarbonization.
The tipping point on climate is here, and natural gas customers won't wait much longer to address emissions from their gas use. Voluntary programs are viable and meet customer and climate needs now. Let's make these meaningful solutions available and commonplace, and continue on the path to decarbonization together.