Loopholes and Scams in New York Gas Plans — Episode 198 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 6 Dec 2023 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Can for-profit gas utilities be trusted to plan their own stagnation?

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell is joined by Ben Kuebrich, Public Advocate for the Alliance for a Green Economy. They discuss New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, what to expect when gas utilities do their own decarbonization planning, and how states and clean energy advocates can actually address methane gas use in the buildings sector.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Ben Kuebrich: They’re fiercely against the Climate Act and they’re making no real efforts to hide that. And so then in particular a company like that, that is gas only, that has that history, asking them to then create a 20 year plan that complies with this climate act. It makes no sense.
John Farrell: Dramatic price spikes have added to the downsides of heating homes and businesses with natural or methane gas, piling a top its climate impacts and the health and safety risks. So as the state of New York, like many other states, wrestles with how to strategically downsize the gas distribution system, remind me again why the gas utility – with every incentive to stall – is actually in charge of this? Ben Kuebrich, public advocate for the Alliance for a Green Economy, joined me in November, 2023 to discuss the opportunity that’s available in requiring gas utilities to do long-term plans that must align with New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and the challenge that comes with those same utilities reluctance to do what’s necessary to comply. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast about monopoly power, energy democracy, and how communities can take charge to transform the energy system. Ben, welcome to Local Energy Rules.
Ben Kuebrich: Thank you so much for having me.
John Farrell: So I just wanted to start off by asking you a question I love to ask all my guests, which is what got you into this work on climate and getting involved with the gas distribution system? What motivates you?
Ben Kuebrich: Yeah, so I joined the climate movement in 2014 around that time and I was working at that time on a fossil fuel divestment campaign at Syracuse University. I was a student at the time and I was one of the lead organizers for that campaign. It took two years and an 18 day sit-in at the Syracuse University administration building. But we won. It was a successful campaign and so that’s my personal entry point into the climate movement. And then I’m also an academic and I teach and I kind of came back around to it with an opportunity to put together both a thread of my research work and then the organizing and Alliance for Green Economy has a foot strongly and both of those arenas and so it’s a really nice fit for me.
John Farrell: So let’s start people with some of the basics. What is it that we use natural gas or sometimes called methane gas for in our homes and businesses and how does that get delivered? Who’s selling it to us and can customers choose where they get their gas from?
Ben Kuebrich: Okay, I’ll break down each one of those questions. In the US we use methane gas variously called fracked gas, fossil gas. The industry of course calls it natural gas. We use it for furnaces, water heaters, for the stove, sometimes for a clothes dryer. And I think right now in the U.S. it’s about half of U.S. households have a methane gas furnace. How does that gas get to a customer, a household? It is sold to them through a utility company. And it’s one thing that I didn’t really know before I began this work is that most utility companies that a customer interacts with are local distribution utilities. And so they don’t own the gas, they don’t make a profit on the gas. A distribution utility makes its money by charging the customer for the distribution system. That’s the stations, the gas mains, the service lines, literally the pipes, the meters, all of that stuff.

And to keep all of that running to keep it reliable and to keep it safe, it takes significant resources and customers pay for that and they pay the utility company and they pay the utility companies shareholders for that. So who’s selling them the fuel? That’s the gas suppliers. And sometimes those gas suppliers have a direct relationship with the distribution utility. It may be like an umbrella company that has a supply corporation and a distribution corporation or they might be totally separate entities. And then the question there, which is a big one and a great one, can a customer choose their gas supplier? Typically now almost all customers in the U.S. get their gas from a utility that has a monopoly on the local gas distribution system. On the one hand that makes sense, it would be inefficient to have multiple pipelines serving different customers in the same area, but it means that customers depend on state regulators to hold monopoly gas utilities accountable for reliable service at reasonable profits. And most of these utilities are for for-profit corporations. And so that’s a constant struggle and it’s one in which the power dynamics are often not equal. The customers and the public are often outmatched by major corporations that have a lot of money and resources and expertise to put into making sure that they get a lot of money out of this system.

John Farrell: I’m so glad you brought up the sort of reliance that we have on public regulation of these monopoly gas utilities because of course there’s been growing awareness of the problems with gas use in recent years, health and safety like respiratory illnesses that can be exacerbated by gas stove safety of course, because using a flammable combustible material in our homes, we have price volatility. We had winter storm Uri in Texas that not only severely harmed the grid but also led to price spikes across the country. Many of us are going to be paying for years for that winter storm. And of course the underlying piece of this is the climate impact that even if gas burns cleaner in a power plant than coal, the delivery system and the climate forcing power of methane is much, much more troublesome. So in New York where you are working on this, you have two things that have kind of brought the discussion to a head. One is you have local moratoriums on access to the gas network for new homes because there’s gas supply limitations, but you also have a climate law which called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act that actually sets for the first time really in many places around the country, sets aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions from the gas system. So can you talk a little bit about how that happened? What’s coming of these changes, the moratoriums and this climate law?
Ben Kuebrich: And so I’ll start just going into the climate law. Basically in 2019, New York State passed the C-L-C-P-A. Sometimes we call it the Climate Act and it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide 40% by 2030 and 85% by 2050. It also has a really good equity mandate, so it ensures that what it calls disadvantaged communities receive at least 35% of the overall benefits of the clean energy and energy efficiency transition. And so that’s the climate law. That’s the first part of what we’re working under. And then when we’re talking specifically about gas and decarbonizing the building sector, we have a proceeding, it’s a long-term gas planning proceeding in New York state. And so it’s asking all of the gas utilities in the state to put forward 20 year plans. And those 20 year plans have to, I’m quoting from the proceeding right now, take steps towards meeting the CLCPA’s greenhouse gas reduction and equity mandates.

So it has to take in both of those, it has to comply with the CLCPA and so they have to be getting something near those greenhouse gas reductions and plan out how to do it over 20 years. It’s kind of neat because obviously it’s a long-term process for us to do this and the requirement for gas companies to look 20 years ahead, how they’re going to decarbonize their system, this is really important, but what we’re seeing from the gas companies with these plans is not very promising. And that’s something that we can I think get into in more detail.

John Farrell: Yeah, let’s definitely do that. I think it’s remarkable first of all that gas utilities are making these kinds of plans because as I understand it, in most places around the country, a gas utility goes in and does a rate case where they say, here’s what we want to charge to recover the cost of all the infrastructure. As you mentioned, we’re paying for the infrastructure really to these utilities, not for the gas itself, but there hasn’t really been a forum in the way that there are sometimes as electric utilities where you’re doing long-term planning. There was this presumption of course that we’re just going to do the same thing as we’ve always done, make sure it’s safe and reliable and check and make sure is it affordable. But other than that, we weren’t really concerned about what happened in the long run and now you’ve got this happening. So yeah, please Ben, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about whether these long-term plans that the gas companies are filing are really addressing those bigger problems with methane gas. And I’m hoping you can touch as well, not just on the carbon emissions, which of course are important, but are they going to get at some of those other issues like health and safety or price volatility?
Ben Kuebrich: And before I go into that, just being clear that the gas utilities here are not doing it out of their goodwill. The state is making them put forward these 20 year plans, so kicking and screaming, they’re forced to put in a 20 year plan to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.

And so first talking about some of what are those problems like methane gas obviously present several problems. Recent studies have covered, we got news coverage on this. It was great. 13% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. can be attributed to gas stove use. Methane gas, as most of us know, is much more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, 80 times more effective over 20 years. And methane is currently responsible for 30% of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane is a problem in New York state, buildings make up the largest sector for greenhouse gas emissions. 32% of emissions statewide, it’s higher than the transportation sector. And so most of that is coming from burning and the transportation of fracked methane gas.

So this is what we have to work on. This is what the 20 year plans are attempting to work on. The 20 year plans also are supposed to be preparing for the scoping plan. And so the climate law led to a scoping plan which has a vision for the entire state. That scoping plan is now out and it calls for substantial reduction of fossil natural gas and a strategic downsizing and decarbonization of the gas system. It was envisioning for 2050, this is the scoping plan still that 85% of homes and commercial building space statewide would be electrified with energy efficient heat pumps and with thermal energy networks. So that’s what from the C-L-C-P-A, the Climate Act, it calls for the scoping plan.

This is what the scoping plan calls for. The long-term plan is also saying, Hey, gas utilities, look at the scoping plan. What can you do to align with this and comply? But of course, as we’ve talked about previously, the whole way that the gas distribution companies make their money is through maintaining the gas system. And so if the scoping plan is saying, we need to strategically downsize, that means strategically limiting the money that you are making and no for-profit gas system is going to try and go along with that. And it’s especially important when there are gas utilities in New York state that are gas only. Some of them have like ConEdison serves New York state with gas and with electric. For them they could downsize the gas system. They build out the electric system, they probably come out even as a result, but there are some gas only utilities and for them this is their entire business model that needs to be downsized and decarbonized.

They’re trying to figure out ways –Then given this background, they’re trying to figure out ways to keep all of that infrastructure there. And one of the main ways they’ve been doing that is presenting this cocktail of so-called low carbon fuels. They’re going to decarbonize the gas that is actually flowing through their system and just keep it all going, keep the gas flowing. And so they have done this. We consider it a false solution and I think all of the research supports that. They put through a cocktail of hydrogen, so-called renewable natural gas, which is variously called biogas and something that’s pretty new on the scene here for low carbon fuels, something that is called certified natural gas or sometimes differentiated gas or sometimes responsibly sourced gas. It has these various names. Each one of them is problematic. The independent consultant that the state has hired in these long-term plans in most cases has really agreed that these are not good solutions. They’re either too expensive or there’s not enough of ’em or there’s just a total lack of studies to support that they could work and that they reduce greenhouse gases. I could give you a couple of the places to go and look for more information on each of these. I might talk a little bit more about certified natural gas. It’s a good example to dig into a little bit to explore kind of what’s going on.

John Farrell: I mean maybe what’s worth highlighting too, before you dive into that is that there are sort of two phases here. The first 20 year plan gets you into the 2040s, but ultimately both the scoping plan in that 20 year timeframe about, as you said, strategic downsizing, which sounds like what a company does when it just wants to fire a bunch of people most of the time. But in the long run it’s really implausible that any of these other kinds of fuels you would put into the pipes, none of them have the capacity to get to that long-term goal. If anything, there are short-term ways to let the infrastructure last a little bit longer. But you’re not going to have a gas company in 2050 meeting state goals with any of these things, right?
Ben Kuebrich: No, no. So no matter what, by 2050 they would really need to be moving towards electric because none of these things are greenhouse gas emissions free. And so even with the really ambitious modeling that they do where they’re over optimistic about the greenhouse gas reductions they’re going to get, but even in those cases, if they’re keeping the entire gas system, one of them in western New York, it was called National Fuel Gas. They were the first utility to put forward a long-term plan and they were getting something like 53% reductions by 2042 with no real idea of how they would get to something like 85% by 2050. And the eight years after that, they were relying on keeping their plan actually is to not have not a single existing customer leave the gas system. So I mean really great for them, they are a gas only utility. They don’t want any customers to leave the system. So they were saying you’ll get maybe a heat pump and you’ll do electric and then at some point when the temperature gets low enough, you’ll switch over to your gas system. And so it’s a tricky and expensive way of keeping everybody on the gas system but turning the emissions down a little bit and trying to get by with that.
John Farrell: So talk about this notion of certified natural gas. This is the first time I’ve heard of that and I live in this energy space, so I’m sure there are other people who are also wondering what the heck is that. It sounds a little bit like some giant corporation being like this is an organic fruit. It’s a nice sounding word, but what does it really mean?
Ben Kuebrich: That is, the early organics, is one way of understanding it. Now, organic foods and there’s a system, there’s some accountability, there’s some standards, but that took time to put into place and we don’t have that time when it comes to decarbonizing in New York state. If you’re following the law or just globally, we don’t have the time to figure out this new market for so-called certified natural gas or responsibly sourced gas.

So what it is, and there’s a couple of companies that work on this. One of them is called Project Canary and there’s a great report from Earthworks about this. It’s called certified disaster. And what they did, they have trained operators and they go out to the gas wells and specifically in Colorado to look for leaks and then they match that up in this report, earthworks did this, they matched that up with reported leaks from Colorado regulatory system there and they were seeing if the monitors that Project Canary was putting in were catching the leaks and they were finding that they weren’t catching a lot of the leaks.

But what Project Canary does is supposedly certify their natural gas system is they put in monitors, those monitors take measurements of the air and they’re supposed to find leaks. And then if a well and a facility has lower than some threshold in leaks, then they will sell the natural gas that is coming out of that facility and out of that well as certified or as responsibly sourced. And they’ll sell that to a distribution utility at a premium which will get passed on to the consumer and they’ll claim a certain level of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of it. And so that’s the whole plan. But currently there are no peer reviewed studies about these monitors or about if this works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no government sponsored or independent third party to review if the greenhouse gas emissions are actually being lowered if there’s actual reduction in leaks.

So there’s just a whole bunch of ways it’s just wide open right now for how to abuse this system and to keep selling gas to people, but calling it certified or responsibly sourced. And it allows gas companies to make claims really optimistically 20 years in the future about what certified natural gas will get ’em. And the gas utilities in New York state are doing that. And so ConEd, which I’d mentioned earlier, they put forward a plan, their 20 year plan says that by 2042, their gas system is going to be nearly 60% of it will be certified natural gas. It’s a huge part of their plan, but as of right now, it’s basically meaningless. They quantify how much reductions they’ll get, they quantify how much it will cost the customers, but it’s based on almost nothing right now.

John Farrell: So it’s a product that hasn’t really existed before that will cost customers more. It sounds like they’d be charged a premium for it even though there’s no evidence so far that it will actually perform the service that it’s supposed to perform, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And meanwhile, while pretending that that will be a solution that will still cost customers more, they’re ignoring all the other things that might actually work such as switching off of using gas. So I’m kind of curious about for the utilities that have an electric arm, their business, there’s a lot of stuff we hear in folks that are working on clean energy around heat pumps instead of furnaces. Induction ranges instead of gas stoves, heat pump water heaters, electric dryers are surprising to me that you just mentioned ConEd, which is one of those utilities that has an electric business. So are any of the utilities really going seriously and saying we are going to be managing the decline of a gas system and pushing people to electricity or are you finding that all the gas utilities, regardless of whether they have the option to invest in electric things, are really not taking it very seriously?
Ben Kuebrich: And we’ll see what happens with ConEd in particular. They’re in this middle section currently where November 20th, they haven’t produced their final long-term plan report yet. And so right now they’ve kind of tracked out a sort of hybrid system where most of the gas system is maintained. And then they’ve also put forward a plan that is heavy in electrification that follows more of the scoping plan. And so we obviously are pushing that they go with that more electrification heavy plan. So it remains to be seen which route they will go for in their final report. And what then the state regulators make them do some of them and we hope more, especially the utilities that have an electric and a gas side, we hope that they will go more towards electrification, the gas only utilities, they are really pushing for maintaining the full system with this cocktail of low carbon fuels.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask Ben why National Fuel Gas or any gas only utility should be in charge of planning its own decline when it has every incentive to resist. We also talk about whether district geothermal has been on the table and how the gas utilities have lobbied and on public relations to delay the transition to clean heating. You are listening to Local Energy Rules podcast with Ben Kuebrich, public advocate for the Alliance for a Green Economy.

Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations. Every year ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it, or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts, Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.

John Farrell: I have a couple of, I dunno if they are random questions. One is why is National Fuel Gas or any other gas only company even in charge of developing the plan? I mean it’s so against their business interest to say basically plan your own decline. Was there at any time a conversation about maybe we’ll just tell them this is coming and we’re going to give their service territory to somebody who provides a business model that actually works in the long run? It’s sort of an interesting exercise to go through to say, plan your own demise and also you have no technical expertise in doing this thing that we want them to do, which is to basically decommission the gas system is like the exact opposite of their technical expertise, which is operate and expand and upgrade a gas system. So I don’t know, was there ever a conversation like maybe they shouldn’t be in charge of this?
Ben Kuebrich: I don’t know among the state regulators where if that conversation happened, it certainly is happening around the process now as we’re seeing some of the results of this and to talk for example about National Fuel Gas for a little bit. They operate in western New York. They got money from the rate payers in a rate case to produce an energy efficiency website. On that energy efficiency website, recently, it was in May that this got discovered and reported on. They built a whole page that is about customers lobbying their local members of state Congress against the state’s energy efficiency policies against the Climate Act, they are robot calling their customers to lobby. They’re fiercely against the climate act and they’re making no real efforts to hide that. And so then in particular a company like that that is gas only that has that history, asking them to then create a 20 year plan that complies with this climate act. It makes no sense.

So I don’t know, they’re the first ones that have finalized the plan and the independent consultant that the state hired said that that plan doesn’t work, it doesn’t comply. They said that it hinders the decarbonization efforts of Western New York. We’ll see now what the Public Service Commission does with it. It will be really interesting. And so it’s at that stage in the process that the Public Service Commission could require them and say, okay, we rewrote your plan. Here it is. And so maybe that’s what will happen. We’re waiting to find out. But yeah, what I’m understanding through doing this work is that public utility commissions, they were built to regulate prices, safe and reliable service. But once the climate laws come into this mix, something fundamental has to change. And we have an outdated system that was meant for different goals, safe and reliable service that a reasonable cost is the old goal for public utility commissions. And now when you’re adding on a climate law that reduces the profits of these monopoly utilities, potentially we’re in a really different territory and we need to make some different laws and some changes to how things are regulated as a result.

John Farrell: I wanted to bounce in one direction here, and this kind of follows up on the national fuel gas example. One approach I’ve been really excited to hear about it goes by a number of different names, network geothermal, geothermal districts, et cetera. The idea being that you’re basically hooking up. So if people have heard of a geothermal heat pump that serves a single property, you put loops in the ground, you basically grab your thermal energy from the ground, you use it to help power a very efficient heat pump because you have this year round very stable temperature underground. And these district systems basically use the same principle but you connect multiple homes. So it is exciting for me because of course it’s got three upsides to other ways of doing things. One is it can reduce the strain on the electric grid of switching to electricity for heating because they’re more efficient than an air source heat pump for a single home, which is obviously using the air as its thermal source and someone from Minnesota where it’s occasionally minus 20 Fahrenheit is a lot more work to do that than transforming ground temperature of like 45 degrees.

The other thing about these district geothermal systems is that they have to be developed in a way that could actually replace the gas distribution system to be cost-effective. You need to have a lot of people on ’em. You can imagine taking a block and saying, we’re going to pull out the gas lines and we’re going to put in this, which is exciting. Of course you otherwise have this situation where some people are going to be able to get a heat pump and other people aren’t. And often it’s wealth and income that are obviously very a lot of racial history to that that are challenging. And then the last thing that’s super exciting to me in particular is that if you’re out there financing new heating infrastructure that is shared, you could also help finance the other connected things. So not just the underground pipes that would supply the thermal energy to homes, but maybe you actually help people finance their heat pumps like to replace the furnace. Maybe you help them do weatherization stuff to make their home more energy efficient. Maybe you help them get electric appliances.

So I guess I’m just curious, I know this is a very specific example. Is that on the table? Are there any utilities that are saying, yeah, we’ll at experiment with that? I know there’s a gas utility in Massachusetts, Eversource that’s doing a pilot project and I’ve heard a number of cool podcasts about it and whatnot, but I wasn’t sure if it was on the table there or any other kind of part of these plans that is addressing some of these other issues about grid impacts or stranded assets or equity.

Ben Kuebrich: That is happening in New York state in certain places. And the geothermal energy networks are great for all the reasons that you went through. So in 2022, so after the passage of the CLCPA in 2022, New York State passed what’s called the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act. It’s really cool. It was a combination of labor unions and then climate advocates that work together on this bill and it’s starting to envision what’s going to happen the future of jobs and energy in New York state. And so you could buy in from both, which is really an excellent thing to do. And then as part of that, all of the largest utilities in the state, they have to put together a pilot program for a thermal energy network. So they have to do that somewhere in their territory. It also has to align with some of the equity goals of the CLCPA, so it has to include a disadvantaged community. So it hits on some of those equity things that you were talking about.

And yeah, in New York State, in a lot of states we’re trying to figure out where all of the energy is going to be coming from and how to create the electricity grid. And so the geothermal energy networks are a really important part of this mix of energy. So they’re doing pilots. I’m not heavily involved in the proceeding where they’re putting together those pilot programs, but from what I’ve heard, some of ’em sound really promising. Some of ’em, it was a utility company just calling it in. They’re trying to get their homework complete for the state and keep doing what they’re doing. So I think some are taking it more seriously than others and we’ll see what happens. That’s a relatively new act that was passed. It’s a relatively new thing to be working on, but there’s pilots and so hopefully they’re successful. Hopefully there’s some that are successful in New York state and there’s some that are successful around the country and then there’s momentum built for doing this. It’s a great thing to add into our mix and it solves a lot of problems at once if we can get them right.

John Farrell: I wanted to ask you one other question. This kind of actually goes back to the earlier idea about sort of a hybrid system. So you mentioned one of the gas companies in their plan is talking about, oh, people will get electric heat pumps, but they’ll still use the gas network and a furnace as a backup. I did a podcast earlier this year, maybe it might’ve been last year with Nate Adams. He talks about himself as the head of HVAC 2.0. So he thinks about this from the perspective of the installer, the person who comes out and helps people make the change in their HVAC system. And one of the things I thought was really interesting is he’s always thinking about this as he says from the kitchen table approach, how do you talk to people about doing this? Or also how is the contractor going to think about this? I have occasionally had a contractor in my home doing service on my furnace or doing a tuneup or whatever, and I ask them about heat pumps and I’ve been disappointed to find that they’re not super familiar with or big fans of heat pumps. So I guess I just wanted to ask about is there a part of the climate law or a part of these proceedings that is thinking about how do you get folks who do these HVAC systems to actually want to do electrification as opposed to just install the thing that they’re used to installing?
Ben Kuebrich: It’s an area that I don’t know as much about. There is money through a state agency to pay for energy advisors and they’re across the entire state and they’re paid as a way of working in between the climate law and then people in their community and people that will install and work on things from heat pumps to rooftop solar. And so different community organizations are getting state money to hire people to go out into the communities that they already know and that they’re already talking to about climate issues and then to be able to offer them a real concrete way of getting in touch with contractors that do this work or helping them through some of the state and federal incentive programs and figuring out how to finance this and use all of the programs that are available to them. And so that’s a really neat thing that’s happening in New York state. I wouldn’t be the one to talk to about how well it’s working or if it’s meeting all of its goals or not, but it’s something that, and it’s new too, so I don’t know if it’s even the time for those conversations yet, but there’s at least a place in the statewide planning for that.
John Farrell: Well, it’s great to hear about that. I was just curious just if in general that had been incorporated, so it’s great to hear that there is some inclusion of that. I wanted to ask you one other question about with the gas companies maybe back to thinking about National Fuel Gas. Again, this gas utility is basically being told, write your own decline business plan. There’s also this long history of public relations campaigns by the gas industry. I keep thinking about what it was like when I learned on some podcasts that this phrase, now you’re cooking with gas, it’s a piece of gas industry PR like, oh my gosh, I never knew that this phrase that we use now is put upon us by utility marketers back in the 1930s. I’m kind of curious if you’ve seen evidence of utility marketing, lobbying, that’s been having an impact on your work on trying to implement this climate law and to deal with these long-term gas plans?
Ben Kuebrich: Yeah, there definitely is, and I already mentioned that National Fuel Gas, that is a gas only utility, was using their customer funded energy efficiency website to lobby, which is not consistent with the law, it’s against the law to use customer funding for lobbying. They were trying to say that, well, we built the energy efficiency website with the customer money, but then the page of the website that is lobbying, we did that with shareholder funds, so we’re good. They’re actually being investigated for it.
John Farrell: Yet another example, I just, sorry, of the utter bullshit that is this notion that you can draw from one pocket and the other and somehow they’re totally distinct. Anyway, I’m sorry. Please continue.
Ben Kuebrich: Yes, no, it’s absolutely true. That’s a great example there and that same company in February, they have all of their customer info, phone numbers and stuff and they were using their customer’s phone numbers to robocall in a lobbying effort. And I think that that one was around claims that New York State wants to ban you from using your gas system. And so they use that as kind of like a rhetoric of choice, which in the United States works really well, especially for certain populations. They’re going to take away your right to use a gas stove and then a rhetoric of fear, which is just really powerful no matter who is hearing it. And so western New York gets cold. There was a big blizzard, electricity went down in Buffalo, New York for many days, I’m not sure exactly. And so people were using their gas system to heat their homes, which is dangerous to do, turning on the stove for heating.

It was heating, right? It’s dangerous, but so is being in freezing temperatures for days on end. And so they’ve used that to really stoke fear from customers of if we leave the gas system, you’re not going to be safe. And so I mean that’s powerful rhetoric. Those are powerful campaigns and we have to work hard to show a future where you can create stability in an electrical grid too. There’s ways that they’re designed currently that can make them more susceptible to power outages in a big winter storm, but we can change that. We can put the resources into doing that. And there’s other ways. There’s been some reports. The wind climate put out a report for Buffalo, New York in particular that goes through how do you in a cold climate where there’s been a blizzard, how do you get off the gas system and maintain safe and reliable service?

That is really one of the PR campaigns that’s really active and has been effective. So that’s the public campaign. And then within the commission and at the state level, they use versions of that campaign about reliability, but then they’re also questioning whether or not the state will meet its renewable electricity goals that talk about gas as the most reliable system. And all of that gets mixed in with misinformation, a lot of lobbying money going directly to politicians, and it creates a terrain that is really difficult to fight against, but that we have to, this is what we need to be doing for the planet right now that we don’t have a whole lot of time to figure this out. And so state by state, local area, local territory by local territory, we need to be educating ourselves and organizing. We don’t have the money to match these PR campaigns, so we have to be doing it in a different way through education and community and organizing and then building power at the state level. We’ve been effective, I think in New York state of passing these big laws, the implementation part of it is a lot more boring, but as some of these examples have shown, if we’re not paying attention in these places where the implementation of these laws happens, then a company with all of these resources can steer it in their direction and they can ignore the climate law.

John Farrell: With that in mind, what advice do you have for folks in other places who use climate clean energy work is threatening the gas utility business model?
Ben Kuebrich: I went through a lot of it already maybe of for these gas companies. They’re fighting for their lives, but they’re fighting for their financial lives. And then all of us, we’re fighting for our lives to our right to have a livable planet, and I think we need to just match their urgency with our own urgency and fight them through education and organizing and agitation. We can learn across states. I’m so grateful for this forum and to be able to share some of what’s happening in New York state and to learn what’s happening across the country because we’ve seen there’s models that happen in one place and they’ll come up somewhere else, like a good climate law will get copied by another state, and then the resistance and the PR campaigns funded by the fossil fuel interests in resistance to one good law will come up in one state and then get copied in another state, and so we can be ahead of that and share that information. We’ve found great partners across the region and across the country, so I think that’s a good resource for us all.
John Farrell: Well, Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about what’s been happening in New York with these long-term gas plans and some of the false solutions that are popping up and the very hard work to overcome the inertia of the gas utilities in wanting to continue their business in a way that is not sustainable. It’s great to hear about the successes that you’ve had, and I think to share some of those lessons learned with folks in other places.
Ben Kuebrich: I had fun talking with you. Thanks so much for having me.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Ben Kuebrich, public advocate for the Alliance for a Green Economy, discussing the conflicts inherent in asking the incumbent gas utilities to make plans to strategically downsize themselves. On the show page, look for links to resources shared by Ben related to the implementation of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, including the requirements for long-term gas plans. We’ll also link to ILSR’S overview of a networked geothermal or district geothermal energy, where we discuss the three key benefits of coordinating the work of switching buildings from gas to electricity, as well as a great Volts podcast with leaders from HEET, that’s HEET in Massachusetts, discussing the win win-win nature of this approach to building heating for the climate, for labor, and for gas utilities. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear how we can take on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Gas Utilities and New York’s Climate Act

In 2019, New York legislators passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). The bill set a target for statewide greenhouse gas emission reductions of 85 percent by 2050, with an interim goal of 40 percent reduction by 2030. The CLCPA has an equity mandate that at least 35 percent of climate action benefits go towards disadvantaged communities.

New York gas utilities must file 20 year plans for how they will meet the emission reduction targets and the equity mandate. The utilities, however, do not want to decarbonize — it runs counter to their business model of growth and expansion. Kuebrich expects utilities to be dragged along “kicking and screaming,” finding any loopholes they can exploit to slow down the transition.

When you’re adding on a climate law that reduces the profits of these monopoly utilities… we’re in a really different territory and we need to make some different laws and some changes to how things are regulated as a result.

Utility Proposals Are Full of False Solutions

Utilities that offer electric and gas service may come out even in their 20 year decarbonization plans; the customers lost from a utility’s gas network will be consuming more electricity. Utilities that only deliver fossil gas, on the other hand, lose their customer base as homes and businesses electrify. The 20 year plans these utilities put forward are especially dubious, since they rely on the continued delivery of fuel.

Kuebrich names “certified gas” as an example of this problem. Companies are advertising their methane gas as responsibly sourced because of pollution monitoring and supposedly lower emissions. However, there are no external standards for the “certified” or “responsibly sourced” label. The companies selling this product may also be underreporting leaks, as Earthworks found in its report Certified Disaster. Delivering certified gas is “basically meaningless,” says Kuebrich, and will not be enough to reach the CLCPA targets.

They’re going to decarbonize the gas that is actually flowing through their system and just keep it all going, keep the gas flowing… We consider it a false solution and I think all of the research supports that.

What Do the Real Solutions Look Like?

Kuebrich hopes that utilities with both electric and gas service will lean into electrification in their 20 year plans. There are also other pathways to building decarbonization, such as networked geothermal. Networked geothermal is more efficient than relying on air source heat pumps and, through greater coordination, does not leave people behind on an expensive gas network. New York’s Utility Thermal Network and Jobs Act requires utilities to create pilot thermal energy networks in alignment with the equity mandate of the CLCPA.

Clean energy advocates will need to weather misinformation and lobbying from the utilities in order to implement real solutions. These companies are “fighting for their financial lives,” says Kuebrich, while “we’re fighting for our lives – to our right to have a livable planet.” They will duplicate their misinformation campaigns across state lines, so advocates need to share information and prepare for those conflicts.

We need to just match their urgency with our own urgency and fight them through education and organizing and agitation… We don’t have the money to match these PR campaigns, so we have to be doing it in a different way through education, and community, and organizing, and then building power at the state level.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 198th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: iStock

Avatar photo
Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.