|By Mark Sandeen|
Q: I understand we are considering building a new natural gas pipeline in Massachusetts. Is building a new pipeline critical to our energy future?
A: A lot of folks thought so last year. We saw some natural gas price spikes when demand jumped during a couple of cold snaps. The utilities predicted more of the same this winter, but a funny thing happened. Even though we had a much colder winter, colder than we’ve seen in over three decades, we didn’t have any problems meeting demand.
How is that possible? You may have heard that Massachusetts is leading the nation in energy efficiency for 4 years in a row now. Our energy efficiency programs have reduced electricity demand by 2 million megawatt hours (MWh) in the last two years. We’ve also added another 700,000 MWh in new solar generation. That’s enough electricity for over 360,000 Massachusetts homes. And we are just getting started.
But the utilities are asking us to bet that we’ll stop investing in energy efficiency, solar power adoption will slow, and we’ll never get any wind turbines built. Who wins if we make that bet? Let’s just say the utilities like the guaranteed return on investment that comes from building a $3 billion pipeline.
What happens if we build a pipeline and no one comes? We would all end up paying for the pipeline whether it is needed or not.
Q: Would it be better to upgrade our existing pipelines? I heard that our old pipelines have a lot of leaks.
A: That is a very good idea. Nathan Phillips at BU has found that our local pipelines are leaking a huge amount of natural gas, almost 3% of our natural gas. Those leaks are mostly methane and methane is an extremely strong greenhouse gas – 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years. Those methane leaks alone are responsible for 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions in Lexington. On top of that, plugging those leaks would provide enough natural gas to heat 150,000 homes and would reduce the need for a new pipeline. Who pays for those leaks today? We do. The utilities pass those costs on to their customers.
Q: Are there other costs associated with natural gas?
A: According to the Energy Information Agency, the US has increased the amount of energy required to transport natural gas via pipelines by 50% over the last decade.
The total amount of energy used by natural gas pipelines is now about 264 million MWh a year. To put that into perspective – that is slightly more than the total amount of electricity consumed in California and about 5 times more than all the electricity used in Massachusetts each year.
But that is small potatoes compared to the 57% to 67% of natural gas energy that is wasted once it gets to a power plant. According to the EIA, only 33% to 43% of the energy in natural gas is actually converted into electricity and makes it on to the power grid. The remaining energy goes up the cooling tower as waste heat.
Our electricity grid loses another 8% in transmission and distribution line losses along the way to our homes and businesses. This highlights a huge benefit of solar energy, every kWh of electricity produced directly at the point of consumption eliminates all those losses.
We could eliminate one California’s worth of electricity consumption, just in pipeline energy costs alone, by switching to renewable energy sources like wind, hydro, and solar. And we wouldn’t have to pay for a $3 billion dollar pipeline that won’t be needed in an increasingly energy efficient but still warming world.
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