Energy News Network Covering the transition to a clean energy economy Mon, 18 Mar 2024 16:18:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Energy News Network 32 32 153895404 What’s the future of gas? In Minnesota, utilities have to share 10-year visions Mon, 18 Mar 2024 10:00:00 +0000

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission last month voted to require gas utilities to file long-range resource plans, similar to those used for electric utilities.

What’s the future of gas? In Minnesota, utilities have to share 10-year visions is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.


No one knows what a gas utility will look like a quarter-century from now, as many states near deadlines for their 2050 climate goals. 

In Minnesota, though, state regulators will soon expect utilities to at least have a vision for the next decade.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted last month to require long-range resource planning from the state’s three largest gas utilities.

Similar to a process that’s long been used for electric utilities, gas utilities will need to periodically submit plans showing load forecasts under various scenarios and how they intend to meet that demand in a way that’s safe, reliable, and affordable — and in line with the state’s policies.

“An IRP (integrated resource plan), just like it happens on the electric side, informs the level and type of cost-effectiveness and a framework for utility investment,” Commission Chair Katie Sieben said. “The hope is that by having the state’s three largest natural gas utilities file IRPs, it will provide transparency and more intentional decision-making in the years to come.”

The decision stemmed from a yearlong investigation by the commission into fallout from a February 2021 cold snap that caused extreme gas price spikes across much of the country. 

Utilities in a handful of other states also file gas resource plans, including Oregon, which has had a similar process since 1989. In Minnesota, utilities typically submit annual plans for the upcoming winter season and offer data on changes in natural gas consumption. Investments in gas infrastructure are often discussed in rate cases.

After a six-hour meeting that featured more than 100 decision options, the PUC began drawing parameters for the data and information it will seek from Xcel Energy, CenterPoint Energy and Minnesota Energy Resources Corp. The plans will include projections for low, medium and high natural gas demand and pricing. They will also model energy efficiency initiatives as a potential resource. 

“I think that’s important in the long term for helping the gas sector meet our overall (state) decarbonization goals,” Sieben said.

Looking to a net-zero future

The Center for Energy and Environment worked with Xcel Energy, the Department of Commerce and the Laborers’ International Union of North America on an approach to natural gas planning that heavily influenced the commission.

The center’s director of policy, Audrey Partridge, said asking for natural gas utilities to look out to 2050 remains difficult “because the quality of the data falls apart.” A 10-year time frame “is significantly longer than any planning on the gas system we’ve done to date.”

Though the plans don’t go as far as some clean energy and consumer advocates wanted to see, they’re hopeful the process, along with recent state laws encouraging gas utilities to diversify and decarbonize their businesses, will help make progress on state climate goals and avoid stranding customers with the cost of infrastructure that may not be needed in the future. 

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of ratepayers’ advocacy group Citizens Utility Board, said the plans are “essential, given, particularly given all of the transition and uncertainty in the gas industry. It’s necessary, and we’re very happy to see this move forward.”

The natural gas market is in a state of flux, Levenson-Falk said. The growth of electric air source heat pumps is expected to cut into gas demand in the coming years. So will federal and state incentives encouraging geothermal and district heating systems.

Minnesota’s “future of heat” could eventually lead to natural gas being used only for the coldest days, Levenson-Falk said. As more customers switch to electric heating sources, there’s a risk that the cost of maintaining the natural gas system would “fall on households that could least afford it.”

The resource plans will help regulators see the “big picture” and how utilities are planning for it, she said. When gas utilities make investments, they often consider a 40-year timeline. But if gas sales decline, ratepayers will still have to pay for that infrastructure, Levenson-Falk said.

Clean energy and consumer organizations said natural gas utilities should consider a 2050 end-year because that’s Minnesota’s goal for carbon neutrality. 

“We want the commission to be able to consider if they’re (gas utilities) putting in a 40 year pipe today, what will the utilization look like in 15 to 20 years?” Levenson-Falk said. “But they didn’t go that far.”

‘Basically making it up’

The natural gas sector is much more volatile than the electricity marketplace, with “so many unknowns,” Sieben said. That led the commission not to require utilities to propose a “net zero” future advocated by clean energy organizations. Commissioners also expressed concerns that net zero may impact the system’s reliability.

The commission decided utilities will need to consider externalities such as the societal cost of carbon pollution in the planning process. 

“I think that is going to create a sea change in terms of opening up more opportunities for cleaner resources and reducing emissions on the gas side,” Partridge said.

Marketing Manager Kevin Pranis of the Laborers District Council of Minnesota & North Dakota said his union eventually supported the commission’s scope for gas planning. But he warned that no “magic” in planning would offer a perfect path toward reducing natural gas use. 

By planning more than ten years out, “you’re basically making it up,” Pranis said. Even the idea of reducing natural gas piping cannot occur unless peak energy demand changes. He believes the distribution system will continue to operate for years but carry less natural gas.

“You need a fully functioning gas system until the day you don’t need it,” Pranis said. 

Fresh Energy’s managing director of buildings, Joe Dammel, said utilities have long forecasted continued natural gas consumption increases despite contrary evidence. Nor have they had to include Minnesota’s 2050 carbon neutrality goals in their thinking.

Energy News Network is an independent journalism service of Fresh Energy.

The growth of natural gas “is at odds with, I think, a lot of the emerging policy concerns about the energy transition, customer preference and changes to the marketplace,” he said.

The plans will allow regulators to determine whether natural gas investments will be sensible in an uncertain future, he said. “Gas resource planning is an attempt to provide the commission and other stakeholders with a picture of potential futures,” Dammel said. “Saving customer dollars and keeping rates low is something planning can facilitate.”

Dammel still believes the final rules missed opportunities to gather important data. For example, he said that utilities will have to disclose potential new infrastructure investments but not the costs of replacing existing gas distribution systems, representing a significant portion of their spending.

Still, the natural gas resource planning “is a positive first step,” Dammel said.

The commission, however, might someday ask for net-zero planning. 

“That’s the direction that we need to head,” Sieben said. “But are we ready to be there yet? No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we, in the years to come, do get there and start to plan for a net-zero future in a more deliberate manner.”

The commission continues to take comments and has an August meeting set to further refine natural gas resource planning, including when the requirement will begin.

Fresh Energy staff, board members and funders do not have access to or oversight of the Energy News Network’s editorial process. More about our relationship with Fresh Energy can be found in our code of ethics.

What’s the future of gas? In Minnesota, utilities have to share 10-year visions is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

How a Virginia company is helping homeowners navigate energy efficiency – and add up the rewards Fri, 15 Mar 2024 10:00:00 +0000 Ductless heat pump

Pearl Certification, known for its green seal of approval for energy efficient homes, has released a free calculator to help homeowners navigate Inflation Reduction Act tax credits and rebates.

How a Virginia company is helping homeowners navigate energy efficiency – and add up the rewards is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Ductless heat pump

In his quest for a net-zero emissions house, Tim Leroux has already achieved gold status. But he’s not content to rest on those energy-efficiency laurels.

The Albemarle County homeowner is itching to reach platinum. And he believes a heat pump upgrade will eventually punch that ticket.

For guidance, the healthcare risk manager will turn to a free online calculator recently unveiled by Charlottesville-based Pearl Certification to help homeowners nationwide navigate the maze of tax credits and point-of-sale rebates for cleaner appliances covered by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. 

Pearl built its niche reputation awarding green seals of approval to customers such as Leroux seeking higher-performing homes.

Leroux, who says he is “evangelical about energy efficiency,” is bullish on the company’s offerings, which range from certifying contractors to training real estate agents.

It ties into Pearl’s dual mission of decarbonizing the nation’s housing stock and maximizing the return homeowners receive on their energy-efficient upgrades. The whole idea is to encourage people to take stock of the hidden — and thus often ignored — infrastructure that keeps their home ticking.

“It can be flat-out confusing for the uninitiated,” he said, adding that eligibility requirements and potential savings offered by the IRA adds another layer of complexity. “It’s hard to sell a solution for a problem people think they don’t have.”

The company’s origin

Residential energy use accounts for about 20% of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That figure prompted Cynthia Adams to launch Pearl Certification in 2015. Adams, who grew up in Northern Virginia’s Prince William County, was no rookie to energy efficiency.

Adams entered the technical field in the late 1990s while leading a sustainable design/build company and then a green building consulting firm. In 2008, she had a hand in originating a climate action plan for the Charlottesville region.

Within two years, she had helped write the grant that funded what became the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), where she began serving as executive director in 2010. The nonprofit provides energy efficiency and solar solutions for homes and businesses in the Charlottesville region and Northern Virginia.

Adams co-founded Pearl because she yearned to move the needle on residential energy efficiency as painlessly as possible. Her goal is for homeowners to earn points and advance their green ranking while plotting a strategic plan toward living in a healthier house with a lower carbon footprint, reduced utility bills and a higher appraisal value. 

“We’re very much a human organization, not a bunch of techies,” said Adams, now based in Durango, Colo. “And that personal touch is how we get a national movement going.

“That, and never tell a woman she can’t do something. It’s a surefire way to get her to do it.”

Seeking a stable model

Jennifer Amann, a senior fellow with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s buildings program, watched Pearl come into existence during her lengthy career in the industry.

“Cynthia and her co-founder, Robin LeBaron, were asking how they could create a steady demand for high quality, efficient services to improve buildings, address climate change and make homes healthier,” said Amann, based in Washington, D.C.

For the most part, energy efficiency updates at the residential level tend to lurch along unevenly, dependent on the vagaries of the U.S. Congress and how much money the federal government attached to assorted rebates and credits.

That “super, super challenging” up-and-down pattern led the two entrepreneurs to form a network of local, reliable contractors with high-level expertise revolving around appliances, insulation, drainage, heating and ventilating, and every other aspect of energy efficiency, Amann said. Pearl vets and accredits each contractor.

Contractors pay fees to belong to the network, which is how Pearl earns its money.

“That is not at all an unusual model,” Amann said. “It’s valuable for contractors to invest because they know they can get better leads and relationships, and return business. Customers benefit because they have access to somebody who can help them through a confusing process and not be stuck with just a guy and a truck.”

Home performance is a complex market, she said. Most homeowners don’t upgrade all at once and part of Pearl’s appeal is that homeowners can easily track their progress toward peak efficiency.  

Homeowners can contact their own contractors, use any number of free IRA calculators now available and do their own homework with their state energy office to cash in on credits and rebates, Amann noted.

“But there’s peace of mind in working with somebody who can walk through all the steps with you,” she said. “I mean, energy efficiency is my world and I don’t want to do all of that myself.” 

Virginia’s IRA rebate rollout set for 2025

IRA-related tax credits of up to 30% on the cost of electric vehicles, home energy audits, electric appliances, solar panels and other projects became available nationwide last year.

However, rebate programs remain stuck in the bureaucratic process because state energy offices are tasked with crafting and operating their own initiatives.

A few states might roll out programs later this year,  but Virginia won’t be among them. Bettina Bergöö, associate director of energy efficiency and financing at the Virginia Energy Department, confirmed that the state’s rebate program likely won’t debut until the first few months of 2025, at the earliest.

When available, the IRA-funded rebate programs will be split into two components. One, the home efficiency rebate, is based on measurable energy savings achieved so it does not specify any required retrofits or technologies. 

The other, the home electrification and appliance rebate, is technology specific. Upgrades that qualify include heat pumps for space heating and cooling, heat pump water heaters, heat pump clothes dryers, electric stoves, cooktops, ranges or ovens, electric wiring, and insulation, air sealing and ventilation.

Virginia has been allocated a total of $189 million to fund the rebates, according to Virginia Energy. That total is split about evenly between the two rebate programs.

The federal government has set eligibility parameters for the rebates, which states are allowed to expand or contract as they see fit. For instance, states could choose to set income limits to steer the benefits toward poorer households.

“These decisions are to be made by each state based on their respective needs and program objectives,” Bergöö said, adding that such a review is still underway in Virginia. 

Opening a green door

Pearl will be updating its calculator as Virginia and other states release their rebate parameters.

In the meantime, Leroux and other efficiency aficionados can tap into Green Door, an application Pearl invented in 2020 that offers customized, step-by-step plans toward reducing reliance on fossil fuels to power their homes.

It links users with Pearl’s contractors and allows them to earn points verifying the efficiency ranking of their home. An “asset” rating means a home has at least one high-performing feature. From there, enrollees can graduate to silver, gold and platinum levels.

“I liken it to airline or hotel loyalty points,” Leroux said about Green Door. “It tells you exactly where you’re at and what you need to do to reach the next level. I’m working toward platinum because I think it’s super cool.”

To vault from silver to gold over the last several years, he earned Pearl points for modernizing his lighting and switching to a tankless water heater and a more efficient refrigerator. He achieved “gold with solar” status last year after installing a 9.72-kilowatt rooftop array.

“A lot of this stuff is a little hard to get excited about because it isn’t as sexy” as his 27 solar panels, he said, adding that he gets an adrenaline boost when he plugs his data into the application and “I see the needle go way up.”

As intuitive as the online application is, Leroux recommends property owners reach out to a nonprofit weatherization organization or a contractor for an energy audit.

“After that, you can use Green Door to build out a plan,” Leroux said. “It lays out the incentives, connects you with contractors and shows you how you can get the biggest bang for your buck.”

Efficiency now part of sales pitch

Leroux, a retired U.S. Army officer, bought his Charlottesville area house in 2020, realized what a bargain he had escaped with when, post-purchase, he found paperwork confirming it was Pearl-certified with a silver rating.

“It wasn’t marketed that way,” Leroux said. “When I called a friend in real estate, he told me I should have paid $20,000 more than I did because of that certification.”

That friend was Greg Slater, a Charlottesville broker and Realtor. The two knew each other through LEAP. During Adams’ tenure there, Leroux had served as director of operations and Slater was on the nonprofit’s board of directors. 

Slater, in business for 27 years, schooled himself early on about the intricacies of energy efficiency improvements and how they can add value to a home’s sale price.

Now, as a member of the Pearl network, he pays for a certification report on each house he markets so he can pitch the benefits of energy efficiency to potential buyers. The reports that accompany home listings cover details of the building shell, heating and cooling, baseload electricity use and management of future upgrades.

“You don’t have to become a building-science expert, but you have to figure out a way to get comfortable with this information,” said Slater, who earned green credentials a decade ago from training via the National Association of Realtors. “The average realtor is intimidated and afraid to have that conversation.”

Buyers are savvy about sizing up curb appeal and the value of visible assets such as type of countertops and number of bedrooms and bathrooms, he emphasized.

“But they won’t pay for the features they’re not aware of,” he continued, “and that includes heat pumps, tankless water heaters, air sealing, solar and other upgrades they likely won’t notice or care about unless somebody takes the time to educate them.”

Pearl certification can add about 5% to the sale price of a Charlottesville-area house, Slater said. He pointed to a study completed in 2021 by an independent appraiser.

That premium is enticing to Leroux, though he has no immediate plans to put his home, built in 2012, on the market.

“For me, the real proof is when I go to sell this house,” he said.

Barring an emergency breakdown of his current heat pump, Leroux will track what type of replacement might be possible next year when Virginia publicizes its IRA-related rebate specifics. He suspects his income might be too high for him to qualify. 

If that’s the case, he will pursue a different route to update his mechanical system, and seek out other nips and tucks to fine tune his home.

“This house already produces more energy than it uses,” he said. “Once you’ve tackled everything on the Green Door roadmap, you start running out of updates. But I’m a believer in living a net-zero life.”

How a Virginia company is helping homeowners navigate energy efficiency – and add up the rewards is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Here’s how North Carolina could cut climate emissions two-thirds by 2030 Thu, 14 Mar 2024 10:01:00 +0000 A high-rise building under construction in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.

A new state climate plan says the building sector could account for 60% of emissions reductions under the plan, as the state competes for its share of $4.6 billion in federal funds.

Here’s how North Carolina could cut climate emissions two-thirds by 2030 is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

A high-rise building under construction in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.

A new North Carolina climate plan outlines actions that would help curb greenhouse gas pollution by nearly two-thirds by 2030 — surpassing a state goal and meeting scientists’ recommendations for how to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. 

The state is already on pace to cut emissions just over 40% compared to 2005 levels. But the steps outlined in the new blueprint, crafted as part of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, would slash heat-trapping pollution even further.  

If sustained over the ensuing decades, the measures would also bring the state closer to zeroing out its climate footprint by midcentury, though officials stress that doing so would require “significant will, funding, and effort.” 

Finalized earlier this month after weeks of webinars, community meetings, and other forms of public feedback, the Priority Action Climate Plan covers six areas of the state’s economy: transportation, electricity, buildings, industry, waste, and lands. The action items are “implementation ready,” officials say, and not dependent on new state laws or policies. 

By far, the biggest opportunity for curbing pollution is in the building sector. Ramping up support for low-income weatherization assistance, energy efficiency upgrades in government buildings, and other measures to reduce energy usage per square foot could account for 60% of pollution reductions anticipated by 2030. 

“The buildings sector is one with a lot of low-hanging fruit that hasn’t been widely addressed to date,” said Sara Edwards, a spokesperson with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which took the lead in crafting the action plan.  

Edwards noted the state’s 2009-era residential building code, which is frozen in place until 2031 thanks to a law passed last year. “Even new housing stock coming online is not as energy efficient as it could be,” she said.

Many older commercial and public buildings lack up-to-date lighting and energy management systems, she added. “State agency buildings alone have identified over $200 million of energy saving projects that are waiting for funding to implement,” she said.  

“The same types of projects could be implemented at public universities and community colleges, as well as schools and local government buildings, resulting in significant ongoing savings to [state] taxpayers,” said Edwards. 

Phasing out direct combustion of fossil fuels in buildings, such as from gas furnaces, could achieve another 36 million metric tons of emissions, almost a quarter of the cuts.  

Recommendations in the other five sectors combined could result in a fifth of the reductions, or a total of 29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or the equivalent. 

In the transportation sector, today the state’s largest source of greenhouse gasses, priority steps include facilitating transportation choices other than cars and increased deployment of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.  

To curb emissions from electric utilities, the plan focuses on boosting solar panels on homes, local government properties, and other small institutions, complementing a state law requiring Duke to ramp up larger-scale renewable energy investments. 

The blueprint also outlines programs to increase industrial efficiency, better capture methane gas from landfills, and restore and protect peatlands and forests, vital for their ability to capture and store carbon. 

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality joined 44 other states in submitting its priority climate action plan, according to an announcement this week from the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees were among nearly 200 metropolitan regions and tribes around the country who submitted their own plans, as well. 

The documents set the stage for the next phase of the federal Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program. With the blueprints as their guide, tribes, states, and large metropolitan regions will now work to apply for $4.6 billion in competitive grants for implementation. 

As the Biden administration races to get Inflation Reduction Act funds out the door this year, the deadline for those proposals is April 1. 

Meanwhile, the Department will take comments on the priority plan until June 3, which it says will inform yet another strategy document required under the Inflation Reduction Act: a comprehensive climate action plan, due in June 2025. 

“Throughout this process,” Edwards said, “we’ve done public outreach and stakeholder engagement. That’s going to continue throughout. It’s not just like we’re going to drop this document and not take public comment.”

Here’s how North Carolina could cut climate emissions two-thirds by 2030 is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Maine replaces bill to halt natural gas expansions with plan to study industry’s future role Thu, 14 Mar 2024 10:00:00 +0000 A natural gas meter near the foundation of a new home under contruction.

Environmental groups hope studies now proposed in place of a ban on new gas service will prove that expanding the industry with alternative fuels would be out of alignment with Maine's climate goals.

Maine replaces bill to halt natural gas expansions with plan to study industry’s future role is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

A natural gas meter near the foundation of a new home under contruction.

State legislation to halt expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Maine as soon as next year has been cut back into a package of studies that contemplate the role of gas in the state’s energy future. 

Environmental advocates hope these studies will prove that continued reliance on gas is the wrong choice for public health, ratepayer pocketbooks and Maine’s climate goals, while the state’s gas utilities see the new version of the bill as a chance to explore roles for alternative fuels like hydrogen and biogas. 

“The gas utilities are going to make a very strong case that they’re more part of the solution to climate change than part of the problem — [there is] a lot of skepticism about that,” said Bill Harwood, Maine’s Public Advocate for residential utility customers. “If they can’t make the case, then we will look at how we transition away from natural gas and toward wind, solar and electricity.” 

Harwood wrote the initial proposal, which would have barred utilities from including the cost of new gas service lines and mains in residential and commercial customers’ rates starting in 2025 and would have told state regulators not to approve any expanded gas service. 

This plan, which also included studies about the health effects of gas appliances and methane leaks and the economics of a climate-driven transition off it, quickly proved “very controversial,” Harwood said. 

It drew opposition from the gas utilities, building trades, industrial sector and the Maine Governor’s Energy Office, which helps oversee the state’s climate plan. 

Those stakeholders worked with environmental groups and Harwood’s office to craft a compromise amendment eliminating the proposed ban on gas expansions, which narrowly passed in a legislative committee last week. 

The amendment proposes a state Public Utilities Commission inquiry on ways to plan and oversee utilities’ future gas investments in Maine; a Governor’s Energy Office study on the economic impacts of Maine’s existing gas service and its potential role in “supporting the transition to a low carbon future”; and a commission to study ways to ensure a just energy transition for Maine workers.

Jack Shapiro, the climate and clean energy director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supported the original bill and worked on the amendment, said these studies should give legislators the evidence they need to start a real transition from gas and the industry’s favored alternative fuels. 

“Our 2030 goals are six years away, and we’re seeing the impacts of climate change pretty starkly this winter,” Shapiro said. “We can’t go around and say, well, maybe this technology will evolve over time … we need to make sure we’re not chasing shadows here.” 

The new version of the bill now heads to the full Democratically-controlled legislature for a vote and then potential signature by Maine Gov. Janet Mills, also a Democrat. 

Some see conflict with state climate policy

The Mills administration has been nationally lauded for pushing Maine residents to switch from heating oil to electric heat pumps, among other clean energy goals. 

The Governor’s Energy Office declined to answer questions for this story about how the amended gas bill and their opposition to the original version align with state climate policy.

Maine’s targets include using 100% renewable electricity by 2040 and cutting greenhouse gas emissions 45% from 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Maine reached 51% renewable electricity in 2023 and was 25% below 1990 emissions as of 2019.

The Governor’s Energy Office is tasked with studying pathways to the renewable energy goal and is due to recommend one this year. The studies proposed in the amended gas bill would dig into the economics of where gas and pipelines may fit in. 

Right now, Maine uses less gas than almost any other state, especially in the residential sector, where supply is concentrated mostly in the far southern part of the state. Federal data shows gas serves about 8% of Maine’s home heating needs, for example, while heating oil supplies 56%. 

But Maine’s four gas utilities are growing. Analysis by Harwood’s office found they’ve installed more than 100 miles of new pipe, an 8% increase, and added more than 6,000 new customers, a 12% increase, since 2019. 

“We don’t want the gas utilities to continue to expand, business as usual, and then turn around and present the bill to those ratepayers who are taking natural gas once the dust settles,” Harwood said. “What we were trying to do in the original (bill) was stop expansion, but not interfere right now with their (the utilities’) continued ability to deliver gas to those customers who have already made the investment.”

To state Rep. Sophie Warren (D-Scarborough), who sits on the legislature’s energy committee, the amendment marks a pragmatic but disheartening approach to getting anything on this topic passed.

“I feel in some ways ashamed to be voting for something that is so far from what could have been good and useful and necessary,” Warren said to fellow legislators on the committee before voting in favor of the amendment March 7.

Warren, who is in her second term and graduated from college in 2019, said in a later interview that she and others of her generation want to see more urgency and less incrementalism from Maine politicians on issues like this. She raised concerns about how much influence the gas industry had on the amendment, which she sees as in direct conflict with the need to go completely fossil-free to fight climate change. 

“I really fear that we could be getting away from what science demands, what justice demands,” she said. “We can’t be, in this year of 2024, saying that natural gas is a partner in that. We have to understand that our goal must be far more ambitious.” 

Alec O’Meara, the director of external affairs for Unitil, one of Maine’s gas providers, said the state’s outsized reliance on fuels like heating oil means lower-carbon gas can still aid in decarbonization. 

“We have opportunities to help reduce (emissions) today,” he said, “and we see opportunities to use gas infrastructure to help deliver renewable energy in the future as well.” 

Utilities eye roles for new fuels

The governor’s office study in the new version of the bill would be required to be consistent with state climate policy while considering ways to do that, including with green hydrogen (made from water using renewable energy), biogas from farms (sometimes called “renewable natural gas”), and district-scale geothermal electricity. 

“We see our infrastructure really as a pipeline infrastructure,” said Lizzy Reinholt, a senior vice president with Summit Utilities, another of Maine’s gas providers. “Much like we focus on creating policy and regulatory frameworks to reduce the emissions intensity of the electrons running in the wires above us, we think it’s just as incumbent on the state to focus on how we reduce the emissions intensity of the molecules in the pipes.” 

It’s not clear yet whether hydrogen or biogas would be considered “renewable” for Maine’s climate goals. But environmental groups have cast doubt on these fuels’ value as part of the state’s energy transition. 

“We already know that alternative fuels, like hydrogen and renewable natural gas, are not economic, efficient or scalable climate solutions for heating,” said Emily Green, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, another nonprofit that backed the original bill and helped with the amendment. “We are confident that the state’s (proposed) reports will reach that conclusion.” 

A 2019 study from the American Gas Foundation found that Maine could produce about 19.6 trillion Btu of biogas per year if it maxed out production from farms, landfills and more. That would replace about a third of Maine’s already low yearly natural gas consumption, according to federal data. 

Summit spent $20 million on an anaerobic digester in Clinton, Maine, that turns cow manure from dairy farms into biogas — enough to supply nearly half of the company’s residential load in Maine. 

That customer base is a very small part of a small utility sector in the state. Compared to Unitil’s 27,000 residential customers, Summit has fewer than 5,000 in Maine — a third of what the company has built its system for, according to Harwood, who has sparred with Summit over its rates and growth in recent years.

Reinholt argued that Harwood’s original bill would have prematurely limited exploration of these and other approaches as potential “levers that we can pull” in Maine’s climate efforts. 

Still, Harwood and others said the proposed studies in the amendment will take up precious time on the way to Maine’s climate goals and to scientists’ predicted future harms if emissions don’t decline sharply. 

“Time is our enemy, and we’d all like to see these … decisions made sooner rather than later,” Harwood said. “But there’s only so much resources available in state government. This is the best we can get.”

Maine replaces bill to halt natural gas expansions with plan to study industry’s future role is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

California’s biofuel bias is hampering its EV future. Can that change? Wed, 13 Mar 2024 09:59:00 +0000 A Tesla and other cars drive across the Golden Gate bridge

The California Air Resources Board is at a crossroads: It can stay the course on its widely criticized Low Carbon Fuel Standard — or transform it to meet climate goals.

California’s biofuel bias is hampering its EV future. Can that change? is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

A Tesla and other cars drive across the Golden Gate bridge

This story was originally published by Canary Media.

One of California’s marquee programs for cleaning up transportation emissions is at a crossroads. Decisions made in the next few months could set the decade-and-a-half-old Low Carbon Fuel Standard on one of two very different paths.

One path, favored by fossil fuel and renewable natural gas interests, would lock in a market scheme that currently extracts billions of dollars per year from Californians at the pump and subsidizes crop-based and cow-manure-derived biofuels.

That would be a disaster, according to environmental advocates, who point to a growing body of scientific evidence showing that this approach, if extended until 2045 as proposed, would cause these biofuels to grow at a scale that would harm the climate and the environment.

The other path, proposed by environmental groupstransportation-decarbonization analysts and climate and energy researchers, would limit the scope of unsustainable biofuels in the program, and instead reorient it to support what experts agree should be California’s primary clean transportation pathway: electric vehicles.

To date, roughly 80 percent of LCFS funding has gone to combustion biofuels rather than electric vehicles. That’s simply incompatible with the state’s EV ambitions and needs, said Adrian Martinez, deputy managing attorney of nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice — and the imperative to reduce emissions from transportation, which account for nearly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve got to eliminate our reliance on combustion,” he said, but ​“the program as designed will continue to provide lucrative incentives for combustible fuels well into the future.”

The regulator in charge of the LCFS program — and this high-stakes decision — is the California Air Resources Board. CARB’s board, which comprises 14 voting members, 12 appointed by the governor and two by the state legislature, holds a host of responsibilities around California’s energy transition. Those include shaping the state’s nation-leading EV policy, as well as determining its broad plans for achieving long-term greenhouse-gas reduction goals.

Critics say the LCFS program’s increasing support for biofuels is in direct contrast to both the EV targets and the climate goals also overseen by CARB — and that the program has been captured by deep-pocketed industries trying to greenwash the continued use of combustion fuels.

CARB has a chance to reform the program with an upcoming vote, initially set for this month, but now postponed to an undetermined future date. But its pathway to fixing the problems that plague LCFS is murky and messy at best.

Right now, the staff managing the LCFS program hasn’t given CARB board members an opportunity to pick a climate- and EV-friendly alternative. Instead, a December staff proposal provides only one option for the board to vote on later this year: a set of policies that Earthjustice forecasts would direct $27 billion over the coming decade toward biofuels and worsen effects on the climate, the environment and the prices that Californians pay at the pump.

CARB does have another option, however — an alternative proposal laid out by CARB’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, created to advise the board on environmental-justice issues.

That proposal would cap the fast-growing share of crop-based renewable diesel flooding the state. It would also end the unusual structure that now allows biogas produced by dairy farm manure to offset a much higher amount of carbon emissions than any other source of alternative fuels.

And, importantly, it would make the core of the program — its carbon-offset marketplace — function in a much healthier way, proponents say. A torrent of cheap, polluting renewable diesel and dairy farm biogas credits have dragged down the price that LCFS credits can fetch for avoiding emissions, diluting the incentive to deploy new climate technologies and sapping what could be a key funding source for EV infrastructure in the state.

The stakes are very, very high,” Martinez said. ​“That’s why you see so much attention focused on this — and a very broad and diverse coalition that is pushing for more systemic change to the program, versus more modest tweaks that will really just keep this market owned and dominated by fossil fuel interests.”

A history of the LCFS program

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard was born out of AB 32, the 2006 law that created the state’s carbon cap-and-trade market. Much like carbon markets, LCFS is meant to make companies pay for their carbon emissions by buying credits from technologies that reduce carbon emissions.

The program requires all fossil fuels refined and sold in California to meet increasingly stringent carbon-intensity targets. In practice, fossil fuel producers have to buy a bunch of LCFS credits from low-carbon transit sources operating in the state in order to comply. The goal is to create a system that taxes planet-warming fossil fuels to fund cleaner transportation alternatives.

But the LCFS has strayed from its initial focus on vehicle electrification and ​“advanced” non-crop-based biofuels to become ​“a swag bag for venture capitalists, big oil, big agriculture, and big gas, increasingly coming at the expense of low- and moderate-income Californians.” That’s how Jim Duffy, a 13-year veteran of the agency who served as branch chief of the LCFS program from 2019 to 2020 and retired in 2022, described the evolution of the program in comments filed with CARB.

Under the LCFS regulation adopted in 2009, dairy-manure-to-biogas projects did not receive special treatment compared to other sources of methane such as landfills and sewage treatment plants, Duffy wrote. Similarly, diesel fuels made from crops like soybeans were considered ​“only marginally better than fossil diesel.”

But in the years since, ​“the LCFS was revised to provide additional and unnecessary support to landfills and first-generation crop-based biofuels” and ​“to mitigate the methane problem created by the dairy industry itself,” Duffy wrote — despite the fact that evidence increasingly suggests that both sources harm the planet far more than they benefit it.

The result has been an increasing share of LCFS credits being supplied by renewable diesel and dairy-generated biogas. 

Chart showing increase in credits for different fuels under CARB's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard from 2011 to 2023

CARB has justified these shifts with analysis indicating they will yield net positive climate impacts.

“The proposed amendments now under consideration will directly increase the program benefits in the most burdened communities, by reducing the carbon across the supply chain for fuels sold in California, as well as improving public health for fuels sold in California,” CARB spokesperson Dave Clegern said in an email to Canary Media. He cited data from CARB staff’s analysis of its proposal indicating that, by 2045, its plan will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 25,586 tons, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 560 million metric tons and yield public-health cost savings of nearly $5 billion. 

But critics say the agency is failing to account for the full scope of climate harms that will be caused by its continued emphasis on biofuels.

They warn that the sheer scale of California’s program — totaling some $4 billion per year — is driving investment in the wrong transportation alternatives. The consequences are dire, they say — not just within the state, but across the country and around the world.

Why renewable diesel is threatening CARB’s climate and credit goals

Take renewable diesel, a fuel made from fats and oils processed to be identical to fossil diesel fuel. The U.S. increased production of the fuel by 400% between 2019 and 2022, and it is set to double it again this year, according to Jeremy Martin, senior scientist and director of fuels policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unlike ethanol and biodiesel, which can only partially replace gasoline and diesel, renewable diesel has ​“no limit on how much can be blended,” Martin said. It could theoretically completely replace diesel fuel for trucks, buses and other vehicles. And California’s LCFS offers credits on top of the federal incentives the fuel receives, making the state the primary target of renewable diesel producers across the country.

As a result, the share of renewable diesel as a percentage of total diesel fuel use has skyrocketed in California compared to the rest of the U.S., as the chart below shows.

Chart of share of bio-based diesel being used in California versus the rest of the United States, 2011 to 2022
(Union of Concerned Scientists)

In a September meeting, Steven Cliff, CARB’s executive officer, highlighted a milestone for the LCFS program: As of mid-2023, California had ​“more than half of our diesel demand being met by non-petroleum-based diesel alternatives. This is a direct result of the LCFS program, and it’s bringing real climate and air-quality benefits to the state.”

In Martin’s view, that milestone is not a win, but a warning. It indicates that renewable diesel is ​“flooding the LCFS, drowning the policy — and it doesn’t make sense” on climate or environmental terms.

Once the demand for renewable diesel outgrows the supply of waste oils and other non-crop feedstocks that can be used to make the fuel in genuinely climate-friendly ways, it becomes highly likely that it will cause more greenhouse gas emissions than it will displace. Critics like Martin argue that demand has now reached this point, though it’s a contested question.

This additional demand for crop oils could mostly serve ​“to expand the cultivation of palm oil to replace the soybean and other oils made into fuel,” the Union of Concerned Scientists argued in comments to CARB. That, in turn, is likely to lead to more rapid deforestation in nations that produce large amounts of these crops, such as Brazil and Indonesia — an outcome that would cause far greater climate harms than whatever emissions reductions result from replacing fossil diesel.

To stop this, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups want CARB to set a limit on how much renewable diesel can receive LCFS credits. CARB staff’s proposal declines to set such a cap, citing renewable diesel’s climate and health benefits.

But CARB’s methodology is out of step with the latest science, according to multiple groups studying these issues. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for its part, says CARB’s analysis is ​“based on inaccurate claims of climate and air-quality benefits and associated health outcomes.”

In a recent comparison of five different models for evaluating the climate impacts of crop-based biofuels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that only CARB’s own model shows a positive carbon-reduction impact.

And while the agency has a proposal to limit deforestation harms by setting ​“sustainability guidelines” for crops being used for renewable diesel, it applies only to feedstocks grown in the U.S., Martin noted. That’s a problem: California is on pace to consume 10 percent of global soybean oil supplies for renewable diesel, meaning a significant amount of the crop oil produced for the program will be grown under conditions CARB cannot police, he said.

Given that reality, Martin said, ​“If California declines to act — if they say, ​‘This is evidence of success; look how little fossil diesel we’re using’” by replacing it with renewable diesel, ​“then, in fact, California is giving its support to a fuel that we know is unsustainable at these volumes.”

California’s biofuel bias is hampering its EV future. Can that change? is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.