Banning natural gas is an environmental misstep cloaked with good intentions

The gas grid is an essential ally in the transition to renewable energy, writes Resource Works CEO Stewart Muir in Business in Vancouver.

Vancouver city council recently debated prohibiting new homes from having natural gas connections. This story was originally published in Business in Vancouver.

Vancouver's latest proposal to prohibit any new homes from having natural gas connections — for cooking, fireplaces, or otherwise — presents a seemingly brilliant display of environmental consciousness. But, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, the roots of this plan appear to be deeply embedded in a mire of conjecture, not solid fact about our existing energy ecosystem.

The most remarkable aspect of Coun. Adriane Carr’s motion on the agenda this week is its inherent assumption that the most effective way to replace our gas energy system is to simply ban it outright. In all this fanfare, it seems that the architects of her proposal have ignored the pivotal question: What form of renewable energy is best equipped to meet public goals? It’s an oversight that reeks of imprudence.

Natural gas, as it stands today, is a significant component of our energy system that is, in fact, uniquely equipped to handle the long-term challenges posed by climate change. It's as if we've been given a tool perfectly designed for the job, but are being pressured to cast it aside in favor of a trendier and untested alternative.

Electrification is a worthy pursuit, but aiming to entirely eliminate the gas system is not just myopic, but could sow seeds of economic burden and exacerbate energy poverty. Electrification and low-carbon renewable gases could harmoniously collaborate to provide a just and cost-effective solution to climate change, while reinforcing Vancouver's advocacy for net zero goals.

A study reveals that climate action strategies emphasizing electrification and gas system contraction could potentially double the cost of achieving emissions mitigation goals — an astronomical leap from $390 to $840 per tonne of CO2. All this while the current carbon tax sits modestly at $50 per tonne.

In the midst of a housing crisis, this type of approach could  add up to $50,000 to the price of a new home while doing little to cut back emissions. So much for cost-effectiveness.

FortisBC, the utility responsible for delivering gas to Vancouver residents, has committed that all new gas connections will employ renewable gas from biomethane or hydrogen. It seems that the proposed ban, therefore, is a solution in search of a problem. Since renewable gas can even lead to negative emissions, such as when gas from food waste is captured before it transforms into damaging methane, a blanket ban on gas might inadvertently create higher emissions. Oh, the irony.

In the face of looming storage and reliability challenges with variable energy sources like wind, renewable gas presents a viable solution. Unlike electricity, renewable gas can be stored, enabling us to use the summer sun or the autumn wind to heat our homes on a chilly January day.

Last year's coldest day had FortisBC's natural gas system delivering twice as much energy as BC Hydro's electricity system. If natural-gas infrastructure is banned, a massive expansion of the electricity system will be needed even though it would only be used for several hundred hours per year. It’s a crucial point the proponents of the ban seem to have overlooked.

In an age where climate change demands urgent action, it's vital to remember that the gas grid is an essential ally in our transition to renewable energy. Dismissing it as a relic of the fossil-fuel era is a costly mistake, one that could even stymie the city's renewable energy goals.

In the complex theatre of energy policy, we can learn from a spectacle unfolding in Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition is fraying at the seams over a divisive plan to ban gas boilers in new houses starting next year - a daring gambit pitched by the Greens, but stalled by others. The skirmish has led to accusations of double-dealing and betrayal, the kind of political fracas one might expect when idealism collides head-on with the cold, hard facts of energy supply and demand.

Witnessing this, one can't help but reflect on the cautionary tale emerging here. The path to renewable energy is littered with the debris of impractical solutions - noble in intent, but naive in execution. As Vancouver considers its policies, the German debacle is a reminder: in the journey towards a sustainable future, there's a treacherous difference between idealistic sprinting and practical strides.

Let's remind ourselves that tackling climate change is a collaborative effort. Banning the gas grid may earn some temporary applause, but could become a self-defeating move in the long run. To chart a course towards robust climate policy, we need to untangle the interplay between concerns about natural gas as a fuel and the useful role of gas infrastructure in our future renewable-energy system.

This ill-considered rush to ban could end up hindering rather than promoting the adoption of renewable energy, crucial for realizing Vancouver's ambitious net zero goals. One hopes the city policymakers will not overlook this sobering truth. The transition to a sustainable future demands pragmatism, not symbolic theatrics.

Stewart Muir is founder and CEO of the Vancouver-based Resource Works Society. This story was originally published in Business in Vancouver.

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