Underfoot in our cities lies a mammoth network of natural gas pipelines, delivering to millions of homes and businesses a fossil fuel that, when burned, emits planet-warming gases into the atmosphere.
In one small California city, plans are afoot to pare back this system: Albany, in the San Francisco Bay Area, wants to electrify an entire city block so that it can shut down its gas line — for good. It has the blessing of the U.S. Department of Energy, which last month awarded the project a $200,000 grant from its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.
“We really hope this can help lay the groundwork for [gas system] decommissioning on a much wider scale,” Albany Community Development Analyst Michelle Plouse said. She is not aware of any other U.S. cities that have tested the concept at scale.
Suspending service to a portion of the gas pipeline is an emerging approach to building decarbonization, explained Claire Halbrook, director at Gridworks, an organization that facilitates grid decarbonization efforts. With funding from the California Energy Commission, Gridworks is researching the role gas system decommissioning could play in a managed energy transition.
When coupled with “targeted electrification” of all buildings in an area, this intentional, systemic approach aims to counter unintended consequences of one-building-at-a-time electrification efforts: If gas companies lose eager-to-electrify customers but still spend the same on maintaining gas infrastructure, the remaining customers may be left to foot the bill. Those unlucky remaining gas customers won’t be random, Plouse and Halbrook warn — they’ll likely be the residents least able to afford to electrify their buildings.
“We really want to protect our low-income customers and renters from having to pay for the gas system simply because they can’t afford to switch to alternative [energy] sources,” Halbrook said. In addition to having equity benefits, targeted electrification may also be more cost-effective and technically efficient for utilities and building owners, Plouse said. “There are lots of places with 10 houses in a row that are all the same model. We could just do the same thing on all those houses, potentially.”
Gas system decommissioning can help utilities avoid spending money on repairs or replacements in parts of the system that few customers will use, Halbrook said. “Don’t keep investing in a system that, every time you make a decision, has a 60-year life attached to it,” she said.
The concept is gaining traction in states nationwide, but sizable implementation is primarily happening in California, Halbrook said. More pilots like Albany’s are in the works: A June report by Gridworks and its project partners detailed their selection of proposed pilot sites for gas system decommissioning and development of community engagement plans. The team pointed to potential sites in the Bay Area communities of Oakland and San Leandro.
What will it take to get a city block to ‘yes’?
Plouse gave kudos to Pacific Gas & Electric, the combined gas and electric utility that serves Albany, for moving the city’s project along. The utility helped Albany identify potential city blocks where decommissioning the gas line makes the most sense because it is up for repairs in the coming years. The line would be simply left in the ground and capped, Plouse said.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are right now without [PG&E],” she said. When it comes to this project, Albany has the advantage of being very small — about one and a half square miles, she noted. “It’s all very human scale,” she said. “We were actually able to get a map and just look at all the gas lines.”
PG&E has a track record of advancing gas system decommissioning research, said Halbrook, who used to work at the utility. “They were the first combined gas and electric utility to support policies limiting expansion of the gas system and to pursue these targeted electrification projects,” she said. “The reason for that is that you have a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders, and if they are making an investment that you think there is a high possibility that they might not be able to recover some or all of it, you have a responsibility to act.”
Of the potential sites that PG&E helped Albany select, the city will probably pick three to five to conduct outreach in, Plouse said. Based on the results of that outreach, Albany will select one or two city blocks to focus engagement efforts on.
Plouse’s team is faced with the unique challenge of getting roughly 50 to 150 people on a single block to agree to electrify their buildings, most of which will likely be residential, Plouse said. If even a single person isn’t on board, the project is at an impasse since utilities must provide service to customers who request it.
“We’re trying to really connect with [residents] on that deeper level,” Plouse said. “We’re not just sending out a flyer, but really honing in and getting an opportunity to talk to them about the climate benefits, about the health benefits, about the thought behind this type of project and gas line decommissioning as a whole.”
The outreach and planning, which the DOE grant will support over two years, isn’t just about convincing everyone to take part. Many crucial details of the program — including who will pay for the building electrification — aren’t ironed out yet, and the community will help develop them, Plouse said.
Her guess, however, is that the city will need to defray at least some of the electrification costs for building owners.
“We really don’t know what it will take to get everybody to yes,” she said.
What comes after Albany’s pilot
Other cities interested in gas system decommissioning will want to monitor Albany’s progress. The city plans to report lessons learned and potential recommendations for state policy changes.
Halbrook at Gridworks has some recommendations for local governments interested in pursuing similar projects. Note the role their local utility would play in the process, paying attention to whether there is one utility for electricity and gas or separate utilities for each resource, she said.
Local governments could also require utilities to explore alternatives when gas infrastructure needs to be repaired or replaced and consider using municipal buildings as demonstration sites for building electrification, Halbrook said.
Relationships with community organizations are crucial, she added. “If you want to enter someone’s home, having the relationship, having messaging from trusted partners is really important.”