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Spire's path to carbon-neutral goal may include renewable gas, fuel cells

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Spire's path to carbon-neutral goal may include renewable gas, fuel cells

Eight months after announcing a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Spire Inc. has started to identify ways to achieve this target, according to Nick Popielski, the company's newly appointed head of environmental commitment.

Following the emissions announcement, Spire COO and Executive Vice President Steve Lindsey explained that the Midwest and Southern gas utility operator set the goal without a plan for achieving it beyond pipeline replacement. The company is still working on the details, but Popielski described how Spire will begin.

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"From our point of view, we want to find a way to be responsible environmentally without sacrificing the service that we already provide to all of our customers who want natural gas," Spire Vice President and head of environmental commitment Nick Popielski said.

Source: Spire Inc.

The first step is to establish a baseline for all emissions from Spire's transmission, distribution and storage segments, so that the company can determine the emissions that it will need to offset, Popielski said. The math will help Spire settle on a portfolio of offset strategies, he added.

"There's a lot of activities that we are really starting to dig into more aggressively," he said. "Some of them will be new, mostly for Missouri or Alabama or Mississippi, but they're not necessarily new from a global or even just the national sphere."

Spire explores renewable gas, renewable hydrogen

One pathway toward lower emissions is renewable natural gas, or RNG, a fossil fuel alternative processed from waste methane from organic material. Spire is still assessing RNG sources, but it saw potential in landfills outside its St. Louis service territory and in agricultural waste gas across Missouri and Alabama.

In Missouri, Spire is supporting RNG development in both the legislative and regulatory arenas, Popielski said. Bills are advancing in both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly that would allow utilities to recover prudently incurred costs to procure RNG and invest in infrastructure. The bills are similar to Oregon legislation that paved the way for that state's RNG tariff.

"We think it's pretty important to the entire state that we pursue this, because there are opportunities everywhere, so we want to be able to put our commission in a place where they can evaluate that," Popielski said. Simultaneously, Spire Missouri Inc. included a recommendation for an RNG tariff in its latest rate case filing with the Missouri Public Service Commission, he noted.

Like the Oregon law, the Missouri RNG bills also provide for investments in renewable hydrogen, a zero-carbon fuel produced in processes such as electrolysis powered by renewable electricity. Spire has internal groups studying hydrogen use, but it is not participating in pilot projects or engaging in esearch and development, Popielski said. Within its regulatory compact, Spire has no mandate or strong R&D incentive to pursue the early-stage decarbonization pathway, he said.

"It is clearly 10 years down the road before it makes economic sense," he said. "We're at the very beginning stages of considering it for our geographies."

Matching customers to combined heat and power, fuel cells

In addition to taking on his new role, Popielski will continue to oversee business and economic development. In Popielski's view, there is "some natural alignment" between the two roles.

As vice president for business and economic development, Popielski works with building developers that need to make energy supply decisions and economic development officials who are trying to attract business to their region. Within Spire's territories, both constituencies view natural gas as a solution, he said.

"It may not be easy, but we need to find a way to be able to provide that access and that service in a way that is environmentally responsible," he said.

While combined heat and power projects can contribute to long-term emissions reductions, making them work also requires finding opportunities where they make sense for customers, Popielski said. Particularly for larger combined heat and power programs, redundancy and stability of energy supply is critical, he said.

Spire is also assessing the potential for introducing fuel cells for residential applications and baseload power, but faces similar hurdles on that front, according to Popielski. "It can be very challenging to find a house that has the right size and the right consumption profile for it to make sense," Popielski said. "I will say it is expensive right now, because some of it is somewhat new. We don't have economies of scale. But I think we're in a position in some geographies to test that."

Fuel cells have synergies with the emerging hydrogen economy. Natural gas-powered fuel cell maker Bloom Energy Corp. recently joined a consortium pushing for a unified U.S. hydrogen strategy and has lobbied for fuel cell exemptions in building gas bans in California, arguing that the policy could undercut the emerging market for hydrogen fuel cells.

Spire has not faced the level of climate policy risk that peers on the East and West coasts have experienced. Bills prohibiting restrictions on building gas use are advancing in every state where the company operates. Popielski said the potential for tougher regulations did not drive the company's climate goals.

"It's something that our customers want," he said. "It's the right thing to do for our communities, and frankly, the right thing to do for our customers."