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Path to net zero: Cracks appearing in natural gas' role as bridge fuel

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Path to net zero: Cracks appearing in natural gas' role as bridge fuel

Cracks are starting to show in utility support for using natural gas as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon future.

Some signs that the narrative is shifting include a recently canceled major gas pipeline project and a raft of utilities setting net-zero emissions targets amid changing customer preferences, new state mandates, and investor concerns that the recent glut of gas generation and pipeline investments could result in stranded assets.

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Path to net zero
How some of the biggest companies in energy and metals and mining are moving to decarbonize their footprints. Please click on the story links underneath to read more of our coverage.
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Overview: In taking plunge, US utilities ahead of global oil, mining
Utilities: Cracks appearing in natural gas' role as bridge fuel
Oil and gas: European oil majors outpace US companies on climate goals
Mining: Miners are starting to decarbonize as investor pressure mounts
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"Politically, natural gas is no longer seen as a bridge fuel," asserted Josh Price, a senior analyst on energy and utilities at investment research and advisory firm Height Capital Markets. "On the electricity side, there certainly appears to be a major shift away from gas due to public pressure from investors, from policymakers."

As of mid-July, 13 of the 30 largest U.S. publicly traded electric and gas utilities had set goals to achieve either zero or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or earlier or have set a 100% clean electricity goal, according to a review of the companies' plans by S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts.

Three additional companies have set aspirational net-zero goals. For example, Alliant Energy Corp. on July 22 announced an aspirational goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 for its electricity fleet and said it would eliminate all coal from its generation fleet by 2040.

In addition, many of the 30 largest U.S. utilities that have not set net-zero targets are still aiming to cut their emissions 80% by 2050.

And at least 10 of the electric and multi-utilities, including three companies that have not set net-zero targets, plan to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily methane, from their natural gas distribution and retail sales operations. Many of those efforts involve replacing older gas delivery pipelines.

NiSource Inc., CenterPoint Energy Inc., Southern Co., Eversource Energy, CMS Energy Corp., Xcel Energy Inc., Sempra Energy, Avangrid Inc. and Exelon Corp. are on that list, as is DTE Energy Co., which announced in late June that it would include gas distribution and retail sales operations in its target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

DTE aims to achieve net-zero emissions both with its upstream suppliers and its own assets, DTE Gas Co. President and COO Matt Paul said in an interview. He also noted that DTE has proposed to enable downstream customers to achieve net-zero emissions by bundling natural gas purchases with carbon offsets.

To learn more about DTE Gas' decarbonization plan, click here to listen to our exclusive interview with company President and COO Matt Paul on the S&P Global podcast ESG Insider.

"This isn't just a pie-in-the-sky commitment or announcement," Paul said. "This is something that we spent a lot of time researching and analyzing and studying."

Another recent crack in support for the use of natural gas as a bridge fuel came when Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. in early July canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, due to "ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project."

Christi Tezak of the research firm ClearView Energy Partners LLC said the trend away from natural gas as a bridge fuel started long before Dominion and Duke canceled the ACP. She noted that some states have indicated they are not interested in expanding gas infrastructure.That very same day, Dominion announced it would sell its natural gas transmission and storage business to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy as part of Dominion's plan to comply with the Virginia's 2045 net-zero target for both carbon and methane emissions. Dominion aims to invest up to $55 billion over the next 15 years in emissions reduction technologies, including zero-carbon generation and energy storage.

"ACP's cancellation is the biggest casualty of the bridge-fuel trend," Tezak said. "But this ship has been turning for a while."

A number of utilities other than Dominion have indicated that their goals are also designed, at least in part, to align with state objectives.

For example, Daniel Cregg, Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.'s executive vice president and CFO, said in an interview that his New Jersey-based company set a net-zero target as "an acknowledgement of what the science is telling us of where we are headed and wanting to continue hand in hand with what the state has targeted within their energy master plan." New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is pushing the state to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050.

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The role of the ESG movement

But Dominion's gas-related announcements were not due to Virginia's new decarbonization mandates alone. Dominion Chairman, President and CEO Thomas Farrell II said on a July 6 call with investors that the growing importance of environmental, social and governance practices was one of the "key considerations" Dominion took into account in weighing the sale of its midstream gas assets and narrowing its focus on cleaner energy resources.

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Dan Bakal, senior director of electric power at the sustainability-focused group Ceres, said that in the mind of investors, "the big challenge is how big a role or how little of a role natural gas can play going forward. There does seem to be too much investment and focus on natural gas on the part of power companies, so it's definitely an area of concern."

Ceres is the organizer behind the Climate Action 100+ investor initiative to push the world's largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters, including 13 of the largest U.S. utilities, to take action on climate change.

One of the companies targeted by that initiative, NRG Energy Inc., is aiming to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 from a 2014 baseline and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The goal reflects the recommendation of the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which said the world must achieve net-zero emissions by around 2050 to limit global warming to about 1.5 degrees C relative to pre-industrial levels.

Also driving the company's target, said NRG's sustainability director, Laurel Peacock, was the need to compete for large industrial customers, such as Walmart Inc., that have set their own decarbonization targets. "We see this as an imperative in order to remain competitive in that space now and in the coming years," Peacock said in an interview.

Achieving deep decarbonization may be easier for some power companies than others.

Take Avangrid, for example. The company is the third-largest wind producer in the U.S. and aims to have its power operations become carbon neutral by 2035, but it is already well on its way to hitting that target.

Of the 30 largest U.S. electric and gas utilities, Avangrid in 2018 had the second-lowest carbon emissions intensity levels — surpassed only by Exelon — and will need to either buy carbon offsets or retire the only natural gas plant in its portfolio to achieve its net-zero target.

Javier Ceña, executive director in the office of the Avangrid CEO, in an interview said the company has not yet decided what to do about the gas plant. But he noted that Avangrid's parent company, Iberdrola SA, is working on green hydrogen projects in Europe, which could be a potential source for carbon offsets for Avangrid.

Furthermore, most of the electric utilities that have set deep decarbonization targets are counting on major advances in related technologies — such as carbon capture and sequestration, advanced nuclear reactors, green hydrogen, longer-lasting battery storage and carbon offset credits — to achieve their ambitious goals.

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Not all utilities shifting away from natural gas

Even as companies such as Dominion are making strategic moves away from natural gas investments, several other utilities, including DTE, Duke and Southern, say natural gas will remain key to reliability for the foreseeable future because it will be needed to balance the intermittent performance of wind and solar projects. Battery storage technologies are not quite suited to play that role yet, they maintain.

Along those lines, Rob Rains, a senior energy analyst at the research firm Washington Analysis LLC, said peaker unit gas plants will likely have a role to play "for some time to come." But he also noted that the shrinking costs of onshore wind, solar and battery storage are eating into the profit margins of natural gas generation.

Rains also suggested that once offshore wind, which has significantly higher capacity factors than its onshore counterpart, is built up along the U.S. Atlantic Coastline, those projects would further put the squeeze on natural gas supplies.

Regardless of utilities' plans, ClearView's Tezak noted that regulated utilities must also get their power-related investments cleared by state regulators. Utilities "don't make a step without the regulators backing because they can't," she explained.

For example, the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2018 rejected the integrated resource plans of Arizona Public Service Co. and two other utilities for being too heavily reliant on new natural gas-fired generation. APS in June 2020 proposed a new plan to replace its coal-fired capacity entirely with battery storage and solar power.

"The bridge hasn't just cracked, I think it's crumbling," said Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Pointing to APS' new proposal, Wamsted said, "You can make a very compelling argument that nobody needs to build new gas plants in the U.S. to make the transition work to renewable energy."

Jeff Ryser is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.