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Gas, electric system integration is key to energy transition, utility execs say


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Gas, electric system integration is key to energy transition, utility execs say

Utility executives stressed the need to more closely integrate natural gas and electric systems as the transition to renewable power gathers steam in the coming years.

The need stems from the intermittent nature of wind and solar power generation, according to Southern California Gas Co. President Maryam Brown. As renewable penetration increases, she projected the demands placed on the gas system — which can provide dispatchable power — will only grow.

Brown said SoCalGas has been studying gas's role in a decarbonized future, including to support increased electrification of end uses. The company plans on releasing a study in the fall, but Brown shared a few top-line conclusions during a June 22 webinar hosted by Intercontinental Exchange Inc.

"It's going to show ... that it's an integrated — increasingly integrated — gas and electric system that gets us most affordably to meet these decarbonization goals," she said. "And it also shows the growth opportunity, I think, for gas. Because the value of the infrastructure is not the same as — does not equate to — the volume of fuel. So even if there may be fewer molecules running through the system, the need for that infrastructure goes up over time."

Dominion Energy Inc. COO Diane Leopold said the rise of renewable power means gas-fired generation will certainly decrease in the long term. But in the coming years, the COO believes natural gas will remain critically important to maintaining reliability and resilience as the world adjusts to life on a grid increasingly fed by renewable power. Leopold said she thinks battery technology is on the cusp of significant improvements in cost and duration, but the COO sees batteries as complementary to natural gas for the time being.

For that reason, the industry needs to decarbonize the gas supply itself to ensure the fuel can be part of the solution, Leopold said. Gas utilities are doing that through conventional pathways like tightening distribution networks to prevent leaks but also by adopting advanced leak detection technology and incorporating renewable natural gas, or RNG, and hydrogen into their supply.

RNG is processed from methane waste from sources like farms and landfills that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere. Hydrogen presents a gas alternative that does not release carbon when burned. When produced using renewable power, it can essentially store zero-carbon energy over long periods, in contrast to short-duration battery storage.

Distribution companies aim to decarbonize their operations by blending the fuels into the gas grid, but Leopold stressed that RNG and hydrogen will be needed for power generation, as well. A growing number of power generators are seeking to displace natural gas at power stations.

That provides an opportunity not only for companies with generation fleets, such as Dominion, but gas utilities contending with building electrification enabled by a greener grid. Northwest Natural Holding Co. sees hydrogen playing a role in decarbonizing gas peaking plants that will be needed to back up renewable power, according to Kim Heiting, the company's senior vice president of operations and chief marketing officer.

"When we look ahead, we think clean hydrogen will play an important role for those generating facilities," Heiting said. "And just like we deliver natural gas to those facilities today, we can help deliver or potentially even produce hydrogen for them in the future."