Don’t treat natural gas addiction with new pipelines

Energy efficiency, renewables are answer

Massachusetts and New England are dangerously addicted to natural gas. We got addicted because gas burns cleaner than oil and coal and is cheap most of the year. But our need for gas is becoming increasingly problematic as competition for limited supplies on cold days causes energy prices to spike. And the problem is getting worse. National Grid and NSTAR – the Commonwealth’s largest utilities – are increasing Massachusetts electric prices by 37 percent and 29 percent, respectively, to account for higher prices from gas-fired power plants in winter months.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2008 we saw a similar increase in electric rates due to rising natural gas prices, accompanied by warnings of overreliance on natural gas. In that year, 30 percent of the region’s electric generation came from natural gas. Last year it was up to 46 percent.

We have two options to address the symptoms of over-reliance on natural gas: we can ignore the warnings once again and build more pipelines to reduce the pain in winter months while increasing our overall dependence, or we can support alternatives that reduce our need for natural gas and diversify energy supply.

Two pipeline developers are clamoring to feed our habit if we choose new natural gas infrastructure. Both are looking for public funding in the form of an unprecedented tariff on electric consumers in the region. The tariff would be needed to overcome the fact that banks won’t backstop a multi-billion dollar bet predicated on continuing low natural gas prices and uncertain demand. In fact, Wall Street is now predicting that natural gas prices are likely to climb toward much higher levels on the global market as we increase exports to meet voracious demand in Asia and break Putin’s energy stranglehold on Europe.

But addiction can drive risky decisions, and earlier this year New England’s governors came close to supporting public financing for new natural gas pipeline capacity (which would not even arrive until the end of the decade). However, faced with concerns from a diverse set of businesses, consumer advocates, and environmental groups, Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to deeper analysis of clean energy resources and market-based incentives that could avoid the need for more natural gas supply. We commend Massachusetts for taking this step to evaluate lower-risk, and potentially lower-cost, alternatives that are more consistent with the region’s climate objectives.

These alternatives range from low-tech caulking and insulation to advanced technologies that store electricity or use waste heat from electric generation, all of which reduce demand for natural gas-fired electricity and natural gas heating, thus reducing strain on the system. While any one of these resources alone may not be able to offset the supply that a new pipeline would provide, taken together they can help meet our energy needs and avoid the need for more infrastructure. For example, electric energy efficiency programs alone have already reduced demand enough to avoid $400 million in transmission system upgrades, and we are only scratching the surface of cost-effective energy efficiency potential in the region.

Supporting alternatives to the decades-long natural gas “bridge” is in our interest. Burning natural gas produces greenhouse gas emissions, and gas that escapes during drilling, processing, and transmission makes an outsized contribution to climate change. Furthermore, natural gas imports send dollars and jobs out of the region rather than supporting weatherization, clean energy installations, and the jobs they create. Making large investments now will tie us to gas for beyond the point where fossil fuel use needs to taper off.

Even-handed analysis of diverse energy resources will help inform decisions that leaders around the region will have to make as outdated coal, oil, and nuclear power plants come off-line in the years ahead. Multi-state coordination can help build a new energy system by prioritizing cleaner, lower-risk, distributed energy resources. Large-scale electricity supplies from a mix of hydroelectricity and on- and offshore wind can meet any shortfall and help transition the region beyond fossil fuels.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
No one knows precisely what the energy system of the future will look like, but successful demand-side policies and maturing consumer technologies suggest that it will look quite different from the pipeline- and power-plant heavy system we have now. In light of the changes taking place in our energy system and the evident pitfalls of our increasing addiction to natural gas, we should prioritize consumer- and climate-friendly energy resources that help reduce our over-dependence on a single fossil fuel. The prices hitting consumers this winter should be a sign to policymakers that we need to kick this habit rather than pursuing another pipeline fix that would further tie us to the price volatility of a single fuel and make it harder to go clean in the future.

Peter Shattuck is director of the Clean Energy Initiative and Jamie Howland is director of the Climate and Energy Analysis Center at Acadia Center (formerly ENE), an environmental research and advocacy group focused on the Northeast.