B.C.'s largest gas utility company has filed an application to the BC Utilities Commission so that every newly built home that wants a gas hookup would automatically receive renewable gas.
The FortisBC proposal, filed Dec. 17, 2020, defines renewable gas as any combination of hydrogen, synthesis gas — often a mix of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide pulled from the gasification of coal — or lignin, gas derived from plants or wood.
It also includes so-called "renewable natural gas," largely methane emissions siphoned off manure, landfills, or wastewater plants that, once processed, are largely indistinguishable from fossil natural gas.
"If approved by the BCUC, this would give every British Columbian a choice on how best to reduce GHG emissions from their new home," said FortisBC's vice-president of energy supply Joe Mazza in a written statement.
Describing the application as backing a "new generation" of gas customers, it is part of a FortisBC plan to have 15 per cent of its gas supply coming from renewables by 2030, a figure that rises to 75 per cent by 2050. The BCUC application states the company is ramping up production of RNG and is on track to achieve its 2030 target.
FortisBC spokesperson Diana Sorace said the company expects the BCUC to decide on the company's application sometime later this year.
Proponents of renewable gas say that it offers a clean enough path to reach carbon emission reduction targets because the gas would be emitted anyway.
When gas displaces coal in thermal power production, it can cut CO2 emissions in half. And as the energy crisis gripping Europe has demonstrated, it is the go-to backstop for unreliable wind and solar power.
Advocates point to an over $8.5 million investment announced last fall to install a new system of wells, collectors and piping to capture and turn greenhouse gases emitted from the Vancouver landfill — located next to Burns Bog in Delta — into renewable gas.
That project alone is projected to remove an estimated 485,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the next decade, according to B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman.
On the other hand, critics say burning renewable natural gas releases emissions the same way burning any other methane-heavy gas does.
Ramping up the gas production could also lead to some unintended consequences. Research has shown between two and 15 per cent of the gas in RNG projects can leak into the atmosphere.
Once the fugitive emissions have escaped, the methane-heavy gas produces a greenhouse effect up to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. As one 2020 study suggested, renewable natural gas could prove "climate intensive."
Environmental groups have also criticized fossil fuel companies such as Fortis for a coordinated marketing campaign that emphasizes the role of natural gas as the world works to decarbonize.
In a 2020 report, Earthjustice and Sierra Club concluded that renewable gas is between four and 17 times more costly than fossil gas.
But all of those concerns pale in comparison to an emerging battle of ideas between B.C.'s two biggest utilities: BC Hydro and FortisBC traded barbs on Twitter last fall over how the province's buildings should be heated going forward.
Not long after the release of B.C. Hydro's Electrification Plan in September, the utility said British Columbians are failing to understand how much their gas furnaces were contributing to climate change.
B.C. Hydro's communication team then opened up an unprecedented campaign to convince FortisBC customers to swap their gas furnaces for a heat pump.
"Did you know that heating your home with natural gas contributes to climate change?" BC Hydro tweeted Oct. 12.
"Did YOU know that by using 100% Renewable Natural Gas your home furnace could be carbon-neutral and still about $140 dollars cheaper a year than using an electric heat pump?" responded FortisBC.
That's when the Spiderman memes started flying back and forth.
FortisBC argues that moving to renewable gas wouldn't require expensive retrofits to residential and commercial infrastructure like electrification at a practical level.
The application proposes existing residential natural gas customers automatically receive a "small percentage of renewable gas" starting in 2024, with options to select more. According to FortisBC, a customer choosing 100 percent renewable gas would pay roughly $50 more on their gas bill per month.
Over the long-term, the company claims moving forward with the plan will reduce household greenhouse gas emissions and offers a lower monthly energy bill than other carbon-neutral options.
The latest announcement is another step in FortisBC's survival plan as the largest private gas company in B.C. faces pressures to decarbonize.
In a 2020 report, FortisBC outlined an alternative vision for B.C. to reach its climate goals — one it says would save $100 billion by mid-century but includes the continued burning of gas.
Detractors of any plan to swap conventional gas for renewable gas say they will only delay the full-scale electrification of thousands of skyscrapers, three-storey walkups and detached homes.
UBC climate policy researcher Kathryn Harrison says gas companies in the United States have a history of actively fighting renewable mandates. She worries FortisBC will follow in their footsteps.
"Fortis is acting like any other company trying to ensure future markets for its products," said Harrison. "It's legitimizing maintaining the fossil gas infrastructure."
She added: "It doesn't challenge the legitimacy of all the other buildings still continuing to rely on fossil gas."
FortisBC finally opened up its voluntary renewable gas program last fall after suspending it so supply could catch up.
FortisBC spokesperson Sean Beardow could not provide a clear estimate for when there would be enough renewable gas to meet the demands of new builds as proposed in the application to the BCUC.
"That would really depend on the number of new builds," he said. "We are dealing with some variables here."
Later adding, "We're very confident we'd be able to meet all the new build requirements."
According to Andrew Gage, a lawyer focusing on climate policy at West Coast Environmental Law, both BC Hydro and FortisBC have not been honest about the limitations of gas and electricity.
He says burning renewable gas is not a viable alternative to an electric heat pump. In Vancouver, for example, burning natural gas to heat buildings releases roughly 54 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
The city's Zero Emissions Building Plan and Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings would require all new buildings to be emissions-free by 2030. That essentially translates into a ban on natural gas for heating within a decade unless enough RNG can be produced by then.
Renewable gas still has value, says Gage. Instead of heating buildings, he says B.C. will need all the renewable gas it can get for industries and processes that currently use fossil fuels and for which no alternatives exist. That includes shipping, heavy industry, and for the time being, heavy-duty trucks.
"We should not be burning RNG to warm houses when there are readily available ways to do that through electricity," he said, "and we certainly should not be expanding the number of houses on gas furnaces."
With files from Nelson Bennett