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Opinion/Column: Charlottesville Gas needs de-carboniization plan

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The City of Charlottesville is unique in Virginia for being one of only 3 municipalities that owns a public gas utility. The city is also privileged to have a well-run public gas utility that over the years has delivered gas to city residents, businesses, and neighbors in Albemarle County. However, owning a public gas utility is now turning into more of a challenge because it conflicts directly with the city’s climate goals that were passed by the City Council in the summer of 2019.

The “natural gas” Charlottesville Gas distributes to clients is actually methane (CH4), which when burned in a home’s furnace, hot water heater, and/or stove top turns to carbon dioxide (CO2) among other climate warming gasses. When the gas is leaked before being burned—this happened 90 times last year in Charlottesville Gas’s system—the climate warming impact is 80 times more warming than CO2 in the first 20 years. Five to 10 years ago natural gas was considered by many (but not all) environmentalists and climate advocates to be a “bridge” fossil fuel as the focus was on riding the power sector of coal—a dirtier and more greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting fuel. At that time, using gas for your home space heating with a furnace instead of an electric furnace or baseboard heating was more climate change friendly and was also cheaper.

Times changed though with the electricity grid in Virginia after shedding coal- fired generation and the introduction of new electricity-fueled heat pump technology that is 200%-250% more efficient than natural gas furnaces. Utilizing natural gas for home space heating became no longer more climate friendly and is now in most cases the more financially costly fuel for space heating when compared to electricity. The Virginia Clean Economy Act gave Dominion and other electricity providers in the state targets for decarbonizing the electricity grid, which will only make electricity a cleaner source of energy in the near and longer terms.

This unfortunately presents a conundrum for Charlottesville Gas’s management and the City Council, which is technically its board of directors. City residents enjoyed a well-run and inexpensively distributed source of energy while Charlottesville Gas’s payment in lieu of taxes to the city’s general fund contributed millions of dollars directly to the city’s coffers and likely millions more in indirect subsidies to the Public Works Department. Can the city meet its climate goals, maintain the financial benefit to its budget, and have a public gas utility? It can, but it will require changes and changes that need to occur sooner rather than later.

Charlottesville Gas’s management did put into place a number of initiatives over the last couple of years to start to mitigate its climate impacts. This includes a small low-income weatherization program (implemented by my former employer), subsidies for installing more efficient on-demand hot water heaters, and a recent home attic insulation subsidy, which all made contributions. However, at the same time it continued to install new connections to homes and businesses, not only in the city, but in the county, total actual emissions presented in the last public GHG inventory (2016-2019) went up during that period. An offset purchase program was instituted that in the last fiscal year spent $340,000 on offsets through British Petroleum, which supplies the natural gas to the city. Offsetting is a strategy that should be considered, but only after doing as much as they could locally by, for example, assisting low-income households de-carbonize first, which would also help the affordable housing problem.

While those initiatives are a good start, they are not enough, need to be modified, and most importantly, a de-carbonization plan for the whole system needs to be created. A de-carbonization plan would likely mean continuing to utilize the pipes to deliver some kind of energy or steam to a certain set of customers such as industry or commercial clients whose other energy options are actually more carbon intensive—though these would become fewer and fewer over time. It could also mean looking at the other assets it has such as its billing systems that could deliver community solar subscriptions and/or assist residents in financing the home appliance changes that will need to occur over a number of years. All of these options again require change, but they would still mean keeping staff employed, helping deliver economically priced energy to city residents, and contributing to the city’s coffers while also ensuring the city meets its climate goals.

In April, the City Council received from city staff an update on climate action planning in order to meet the climate goals. At that presentation, Charlottesville Gas did not present. At Charlottesville Gas’s recent public hearing, it mentioned working on a de-carbonization plan, but gave no real specifics. It did mention making major new investments to replace pipe, which could potentially become “stranded assets” or like one of the coal-fired power plants that no longer have any customers and who investors lose money on.

The City Council should require Charlottesville Gas to stop installing new connections until they present a de-carbonization plan to be approved by council and/or as part of the Climate Action Plan. Additionally, it should shift the $340,000/year it is spending on offsets and put that towards assisting low-income households switch from gas furnaces to electric heat pumps for example. By taking those actions, Charlottesville Gas can start down a new path that is aligned with the City’s climate goals.

Chris Meyer is the former executive director for the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP).

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