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Visuals of the deep grey plumes rising from smokestacks of coal-fired electricity-generating plants around the world handily made natural gas an easy sell as a "clean" or "green" alternative. After all, the colourless, ordourless gas burns with a greenhouse gas emissions impact of about half that of coal. It also has a lower impact than burning diesel, gasoline or propane.
Natural gas has been hailed as a solution to both carbon-intensive electricity-generation and heating woes. In the United States, where expansion of the natural gas market has been pursued for years, officials even tried to rebrand that fossil fuel source as "freedom gas" last year, as it gives "America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy," according to Mark Menezes, U.S. under secretary of energy.
But reliance on natural gas to get off of more carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy sources is creating a new problem in the race to lower emissions internationally, but also in Manitoba.
Since hydroelectricity accounts for nearly all of Manitoba’s electricity generation, natural gas is used primarily as a heating source and in more densely populated areas, where installing the needed pipes and infrastructure was cost-effective.
In Winnipeg, despite the renewable source of electric power, burning natural gas accounts for one-third of emissions, with 99 per cent being attributed to commercial and residential heating.
Energy efficiencies are being pursued, but the amount of natural gas used is expected to continue to grow with the population and further development of the city, according to the City of Winnipeg’s climate plan.
For Manitoba Hydro, using natural gas for heating is an absolute necessity, explains Scott Powell, the utility’s director of corporate communications.
"If everybody switched completely to electric heat, whether it was baseboard or electric furnace, we’d have to add 5,000 to 7,000 megawatts of generating capacity to take that load. That’s how much energy natural gas provides," Powell told the Free Press. "And that’s doubling our system, and that’s just on the generation side, we’d also have to add additional transmission (capacity). I’m not talking millions, I’m talking billions of dollars."
To put that number in perspective, the 133 wind turbines in the province provide 258 megawatts of generation capacity. The new Keeyask Project in northern Manitoba is expected to bring an additional 695 megawatts of capacity into the provincial grid.
So, Powell says there are no plans for Manitoba Hydro to pursue electrification of heating for the approximately 130 communities across southern Manitoba to which they provide natural gas, piped in from Alberta. Instead, energy efficiency programs are being pursued to encourage retrofits and upgrades that will decrease individual clients’ need for natural gas.
The reliance on natural gas as a source of heat creates a policy pathway that cements its emissions in a way that is incompatible with international climate goals. Increasingly, companies and communities are trying to find alternatives.
Continuing to pursue investment in natural gas infrastructure is what’s known in climate policy circles as "carbon lock-in" as in, after the investment is made, communities are locked in to that energy source or they risk losing out on the value of their investment.
"Governments and companies are planning significant investments in new natural gas infrastructure, locking in a dependency on fossil fuels, while ignoring the increasing role of low-carbon alternatives," says the Climate Action Tracker’s 2017 report Foot Off the Gas.
This concern has sparked chain reactions across the United States, where communities are looking to ban new homes from connecting to natural gas lines. In California, Berkeley began the trend last summer, followed by other cities in the state, and in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.
Electrification of heat sources is one possibility, but not enough credence is given to other alternatives in Canada, says Winnipeg-based geothermal expert Ed Lohrenz, owner of the firm GEOptimize.
In 1992, Lohrenz installed 660 feet of plastic piping underneath his home to both heat and cool it using the temperature of the ground beneath its foundation as a heat and cooling sink. The system does rely on a small electric pump, but not to the same degree that would be needed for something like baseboard electric heaters.
This heat pump technology is Lohrenz’s specialty. He’s worked on various forms of geothermal heat pump systems from Carman, just southwest of Winnipeg, to Mang Sang, South Korea. He’s even worked on designing similar technology for the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.
The problem with the technology is that most engineers don’t properly understand the systems and as a result they rely on rules of thumb, Lohrenz says. These flawed rules of thumb leave potential customers with overblown cost estimates and a poor understanding of the efficiency potential.
"The size of the ground heat exchanger is really sensitive to a couple things: one, is how much heat you’re trying to pull from the ground over the year, versus how much heat you’re trying to reject into the ground over the year. It’s almost like a bank account," Lohrenz said.
Lohrenz has been working with other experts in the industry to try and streamline estimates for commercial and residential customers to have easier access to realistic cost quotes and efficiency estimates. Developing this database simulator would mean individuals and companies would no longer have to invest in costly estimates and design mockups before making a decision.
"Because of the misperception that these (heating systems) are expensive, or that they aren’t necessarily as reliable; then you’re going to make a decision to put in a gas boiler and just be done with it. So, that’s been one of the problems in this industry," Lohrenz said.
According to Lohrenz, the cost of a heat pump for a residential home is roughly the same as a gas furnace and air conditioning system, running between $8,000-$12,000. However, there is an additional cost of installing the ground heat exchanger — the piping that runs under a house to allow for heat capture and release — that runs up additional costs. Lohrenz estimates this aspect of the system would cost between $10,000-$18,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home, with the cost varying depending on the type of drilling pursued and geography on which the home is situated.
But evidence of geothermal heat exchanges and — for commercial centres — district energy systems being effective methods of heating (yes, even in Winnipeg winters), one need not look far. The Manitoba Hydro Place in downtown Winnipeg is home to the largest closed loop geothermal system in the province, as well as countless other design choices that make the building more efficient. The Seasons of Tuxedo shopping centre is built on top of district energy geothermal systems that provide heat and cooling to multiple locations.
On the residential side, governments and utility companies could follow the lead of incentivizing behaviour in a more active way.
Ottertail Power is a small electricity-generating utility company providing service to 140,000 customers across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. With a mostly rural customer base, they aren’t trying to move people away from burning natural gas, but rather from fossil-fuel powered electricity.
Because of their base in Minnesota, the utility company is obliged by legislation passed in the 1980s to invest 1.5 per cent of their gross operating revenues in conservation and energy efficiency programs, aiming for 1.5 per cent energy savings annually. As a result, Lohrenz has worked with their team to help develop what he describes as "one of the most successful programs to promote geothermal heat pump systems in North America."
But that’s far from their only unconventional energy efficiency policy.
"Geothermal is one. Where someone had another type of heat, or a less efficient source of heat, we will pay them a rebate to change over," says Brian Draxton, the manager of resource planning with Ottertail Power.
They also incentivize under-floor heating, heat storage systems where power can be built up in non-peak hours, and direct load control where the electricity company can go in and turn off a home’s high-powered heating and cooling systems during peak hours to control the demand on the system.
"We have started seeing that it’s getting harder and harder to (develop efficiencies), because you start with the low-hanging fruit, and then it gets harder and more expensive," Draxton told the Free Press. "We often get pushed to try and achieve higher (reduction) levels. I think we’re around three per cent now and have been for the last number of years as a utility."
As far as the geothermal heat pump systems, Jon Fabre, the supervisor of marketing programs at Ottertail Power, says working with Lohrenz to design the heating systems has lowered the cost of installing the systems by 40 to 50 per cent of what might otherwise be estimated.
"Standard design practices really don’t work," Fabre said. "It’s a matter of educating customers on what the economics of geothermal really are. And on the other side, it’s a matter of educating the architecture and engineering communities that these rules of thumb that result in 20- to 30-year payback (periods) for geothermal aren’t realistic. We’re seeing paybacks of less than 10 years."
Efficiency Manitoba offers new residential home builders between $1,200 and $12,000 to design an energy-efficient home from square one, along with a host of other efficiency rebate programs. For commercial builders, there is $10,000 on the table to invest in energy modelling before a build starts.
But even with these kinds of programs in place the City of Winnipeg, in its climate change plan, is forecasting continued growth in the use of natural gas in the city up to 124 per cent of 2011 levels by 2030.
Experts describe the period we’re in now, as a society, as critical in setting up how the next decades will unfold with regards to emissions and climate change.
"Near-term choices to invest in fossil fuels may lead society along dead-end paths that will be costly to reverse later on. This experience is common to many jurisdictions (e.g., the United States and the United Kingdom), where ongoing investments in natural gas infrastructure (from power stations to pipelines) could extend carbon-intensive arrangements out to midcentury and beyond," writes Daniel Rosenbloom, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, for the World Resource Institute.
To illustrate this concern, Lohrenz uses project designs that he recently completed for the City of Toronto on three major facility retrofits — including the city’s emergency medical services building and East York Civic Centre. Lohrenz said that with high-efficiency natural gas boilers and chillers in the buildings, the best the buildings could achieve were 35 per cent emissions reductions, which is substantial, but reaching targets of 80 per cent reductions by 2050 would be impossible without more substantial changes right now.
"With the geothermal system, because they’re going all electric, they’re eliminating the use of fossil fuels on-site. And even with the power in Ontario — which is not as clean as ours is — they can now achieve about an 80 per cent reduction (in emissions). And as the electric grid in Ontario cleans up more over time, that’s going to get better," Lohrenz said. "If they were to then install enough (photovoltaic solar panels) on their roof, it could get them to net zero on an existing 30-year-old building."
Powell at Manitoba Hydro says all customers have the choice, it’s up to them to make the changes they see fit and take advantage of the Efficiency Manitoba programs that provide financial incentives for these kinds of choices.
"We provide the information, they can choose what kind of heating system they install," Powell said. "Using clean-burning natural gas is going to be a part of Manitoba’s fuel mix for the foreseeable future."
Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press climate change reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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