What is the Future of Gas?

June 28, 2022

This year has been a critical time to consider the future of gas - or the lack of a future for gas! Climate laws across the country are driving states to drastically reduce emissions. To actually achieve those reductions, we must transition our energy systems away from carbon-based fuels that warm and pollute the atmosphere, including natural gas. Yet until recently, no states had even begun a plan for moving beyond gas. 

Here in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey requested that our state regulators and utilities take a hard look at how, or if, gas utilities can meet our state's climate mandates by the year 2050. In response, the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU) opened a proceeding, known as Docket 20-80, to examine “The Role of Gas Distribution Companies in Achieving the Commonwealth’s Climate Goals."

Despite its name, the 20-80 docket does not consider what the world will be like in the year 2080. It should. As part of the docket, gas utilities selected a consultant, E3, to analyze and write a report on possible paths forward. The consultant’s report outlines multiple options – including those that are methane-based (hydrogen and biogas), pollute the atmosphere, pose health hazards when leaked, and keep natural gas in use. Also included as potential pathways are non-emitting, safe heat pumps, including networked geothermal energy (I think you already know our stance on that!). If you don’t…networked geo is a reliable, safe, non-emitting technology that can achieve our reductions goals using the existing workforce and customer base of gas utilities. 

The question of how to heat and cool our buildings without furthering climate change is a huge challenge to solve. We appreciate all the work that went into this process and see this moment as a huge opportunity and an encouraging marker of progress.

In March, HEET had the opportunity to file an alternative regulatory proposal to the DPU, where we explain our perspective and recommendations on the best way to get our state to its climate goals. We know you will all gleefully read HEET’s 91-page submission (especially you, DPU), but to make it easier, we have summarized HEET’s filing below. 

  1. Regulatory innovation period for gas utilities: HEET proposes a period of innovation from 2022-2030 to pilot and report on possible technologies that could allow gas distribution companies to transform into non-emitting thermal delivery companies. Under normal circumstances, regulations are used to maintain safety, reliability and affordability. But in this moment of inflection, we instead need an innovation framework, with pilots and pivots welcomed, and the door to alternate pathways open.
  2. Networked thermal energy as a universally used and useful option: Despite the need for innovation, we are also in a moment of rational urgency. We must begin to move off natural gas even as we determine exactly how. Therefore, we propose that we immediately begin redirecting new gas pipe construction to instead build a network of ambient-temperature thermal pipes which provide energy to customer heat pumps. What will keep the pipes the right temperature? You know we think one of the best options is boreholes but this proposed network could connect to any thermal source. With growing data in the innovation period, we can determine the optimal thermal source without having lost time. .

The scale of this challenge calls not for incrementalism, but for transformation. We do not have consensus on what the future of heat will look like, but we know it won’t be  business as usual. We are aiming for the evolution of our current gas system into an energy system that meets the state’s existing 2050 goals, that has the potential to deliver zero emissions, and that provides equitable, safe, affordable, reliable energy to 2100 and beyond. We want no part in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.