Natural gas shortage could last all winter; households urged to conserve

British Columbians are heeding the call to conserve natural gas, but it might not be enough, says Fortis B.C.

The company has been looking at a variety of options to increase its stock of natural gas since an explosion at an Enbridge gas pipeline in October near Prince George temporarily stopped the flow of gas. Since the pipeline was repaired at the start of November, Enbridge has been willing to push only a reduced amount of fuel through it.

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The top priority for Fortis is to ensure B.C. residents have heat through the winter, said Sean Beardow, manager of corporate communications for Fortis. Industrial customers might be asked to switch to other fuels to ensure there’s enough gas for home heating, he said.

“It’s hard to say [if conservation is enough], there are so many variables involved. Demand for gas is very closely tied to temperature.

“That’s why we are pushing that conservation message.”

As many as 700,000 customers on Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and in northern B.C. could be directly affected by a natural gas shortage.

Fortis has expanded an ad campaign that includes television commercials and emails to natural-gas customers asking them to wash clothes in cold water and to keep thermostats between 18 C and 20 C when at home and awake, and no more than 17, when away or sleeping.

“Small changes like dropping the thermostat a couple of degrees or cutting down time in the shower by a minute or two ends up meaning a tremendous amount of gas is being saved,” Beardow said.

“Every molecule of gas that one person doesn’t use can then be used elsewhere in the system. It really is one of those things where small steps can make a big difference.”

Enbridge has told Fortis that while the pipeline has been repaired it will only be pumping fuel at 55 per cent of optimal pressure and ramping up to 80 per cent by the end of November.

Beardow said they don’t know when supply will be back to normal, but they are making plans to deal with reduced supply through the winter, when demand is at its highest.

“We are still limited to roughly half the normal amount of gas we can access from Enbridge’s transmission system; that’s why we are asking our customers to conserve,” he said.

So far it’s been working.

Immediately following the explosion and after an appeal to conserve, Fortis noticed a 20 per cent decrease in natural gas use from residential users. The company also asked major industrial users such as pulp mills to cease using natural gas altogether and switch to alternative fuel sources where possible.

“Since then, all industrial customers have been brought back online, though their use may be limited to not necessarily what they would normally use,” said Beardow.

“A lot of the users in that rate class have the ability to fuel switch and a lot of them have volunteered to do so.”

Catalyst Paper, which operates pulp and paper mills in Crofton, Port Alberni and Powell River, is preparing for the worst. The company already uses biomass to supply over 90 per cent of the mills’ steam needs, but uses natural gas in its kilns and as a backup in its boilers.

Catalyst vice-president of strategic development Carlo Dal Monte said the pipeline rupture resulted in increased spot price for gas and has the company re-evaluating its use of natural gas in certain situations.

“In general, it has been business as usual at our mills following the incident. We are taking steps to ensure we have alternate fuels available at our mills in the event that the supply of natural gas is further constrained this winter,” he said.

That could be the case for large users, who are first in line for curtailments.

“A lot of industrial customers are not buying their gas directly from us — we act as distributing agents. When curtailments happen, they are on an interruptible rate class so we can basically say ‘you are paying for distribution and we are not going to distribute to you because we have supply issues and we are conserving gas for our [residential] core customers,’ ” Beardow said.

“When we start looking at curtailment of industrial customers, it’s the largest consumers of gas that make more sense to shut off before you work down to the smaller users,” he said.

“Maintaining service for residential customers is really our first priority.”

Beardow said Fortis has sent conservation requests to all rate classes and customers, including large institutions and cities.

The City of Victoria has reduced building temperatures. “Heating control systems for city buildings are already programmed for energy efficiency; the main effort to reduce consumption further is reducing building temperatures during the day and when there is reduced occupancy, such as after hours,” said Bill Eisenhauer, the city’s head of engagement.

Temperatures have been reduced in the city’s public works administration and trades building, city hall, fire halls and parks administration buildings.

The University of Victoria has reduced temperatures in all buildings heated by natural gas to between 18 C and 20 C during the day, a drop of two to three degrees. Heating systems are running for fewer hours. Students and staff are being asked to wear warmer clothing.

Island Health spokeswoman Meribeth Burton said Island hospitals have not been asked to reduce natural gas use, and don’t expect to be even if Fortis curtails supply.

However, Burton said they have tested their sites and have determined they could switch to oil as a fuel source if required.

Fortis is getting more fuel from an Alberta pipeline, has B.C. Utilities Commission approval to purchase natural gas on the open market, and has natural gas reserves in the pipeline south of Prince George, and in its liquefied natural gas storage tanks in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.

aduffy@timescolonist.comt

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