Natural gas’s role in state’s low-carbon future comes with caveats

By Anne C. Mulkern | 01/27/2015 07:58 AM EST

LOS ANGELES — The head of the California agency keeping the state on track to meet its ambitious climate goals didn’t rule out the long-term use of natural gas yesterday but said she also sees caveats on the horizon.

LOS ANGELES — The head of the California agency keeping the state on track to meet its ambitious climate goals didn’t rule out the long-term use of natural gas yesterday but said she also sees caveats on the horizon.

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, speaking at the VerdeXchange 2015 conference here, rejected the premise of the panel she was on, dubbed "Natural Gas — Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?" ARB is "fuel neutral," she said, when the agency looks at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Golden State aims to shrink those to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990’s point by 2050.

Nichols added, however, that the state needs "to look at the full life-cycle picture of emissions when we talk about any fuel," including production, transport and use.


"When we do that, we certainly find ourselves in agreement with the [state] Energy Commission that right now, it’s pretty hard to see how in 2050 we can be burning much of anything in the state of California to meet our carbon goals," Nichols said. "Much of anything, however, still leaves quite a bit of room for some things that we are not going to be able to replace."

California has been one of the nation’s bigger users of natural gas, employing it as a bridge fuel for some time as it moved away from coal and oil, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. The fuel accounted for 60.5 percent of in-state generation in 2013, the CEC has said.

"It’s certainly been a part of our strategy," Weisenmiller said. "At the same time, we’re certainly looking at a stage now of saying, ‘What’s next?’"

The potential of methane emissions from gas pipelines is also a concern, he said, given that those are far more potent than those from carbon. Weisenmiller showed a slide taken from space that revealed methane emissions in the United States, including at Four Corners at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, and in the Bakersfield area of California.

"It’s a huge issue," Weisenmiller said. "Depending on where we are on this methane leakage, again, it’s scary when you can start seeing it from space."

Signs that natural gas use will be cut

California stands in contrast to other states on natural gas, said the moderator of the panel, Jim Kelly, former senior vice president at utility Southern California Edison, during the onset of the discussion.

"Many states are proudly proclaiming that they’re going green by switching from coal to natural gas," Kelly said. "On the other hand, California policy of late seems to be sending a different message about natural gas. Some recent and proposed changes to California codes would seem intended to reduce the role of natural gas in the home" and are moving it toward power plants "that could be replaced at some point."

A change to the state’s building code in 2013 said that with a few exceptions, a natural gas system or equipment for cooking, pool and spa heaters could only be installed if it did not have a continuously burning pilot.

Nichols said there are some realities about the state’s future if it wants to cut emissions to desired levels by 2050.

"The studies that we look at would appear, as of now, to indicate that everything including the transportation sector would have to be electrified, and the electricity would have to come from renewable fuels," Nichols said. "However, and this is a big however, the [Southern California] Gas Company itself has come forward with some very progressive ideas about how to have a future based on renewable natural gas.

"There’s no reason, as far as I know, based on physics or chemistry, why that’s not a plausible future," Nichols added.

Researching ‘renewable’ natural gas

Dennis Arriola, president and CEO at Southern California Gas Co., explained that the company is looking into converting biogas from farms or agriculture into hydrogen or bio-methane, then using the company’s pipeline system "to blend that in." It could then "be used in our pipeline system and delivered as renewable natural gas to customers," he said.

As well, he said, companies in Germany, Spain and Italy are "decarbonizing their pipeline."

They have taken unneeded solar panels and have separated the hydrogen out of water, storing that in the pipeline system, he said, and "blending with natural gas, so essentially you had a battery that can later be used to generate electricity when you need it."

"It is renewable, sustainable natural gas," he added.

Southern California Gas is talking with ARB, the Energy Commission and the Independent System Operator — the state’s grid manager — about pilot projects that could be done in California, Arriola said.

The company said that natural gas also is needed as the greater Los Angeles area seeks to reduce air pollutants beyond greenhouse gases. The region needs to cut smog to be in line with requirements from a local air district, and switching heavy trucks to liquefied natural gas would help. There are about 250,000 of those trucks in the area, said Rodger Schwecke, vice president of customer solutions at Southern California Gas.

"Our whole infrastructure is built around the use of the car," Schwecke said.