An "oversimplified approach" to decarbonising heating
There is too often an “oversimplified approach” to decarbonising heating in North America, Tonja Leach, director of Canadian non-profit group QUEST Canada, tells Gas Pathways. But addressing emissions in the sector is a complex issue, she says, making it difficult to pin the blame on any particular layer of government.
Local authorities across Canada and the US have introduced new plans in recent years to scale down emissions related to heating, sometimes limiting the role that natural gas can play while pursuing significant electrification. In mid-December, for instance, New York City’s council voted to prohibit the combustion of any fuel that emits 25 kg or more of CO2/mn Btu of energy used for heating in most new buildings. While not an outright ban on gas, the legislation effectively makes the fuel’s unabated use impossible, as it emits around 53 kg of CO2/mn Btu, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
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In the Canadian province of Quebec, it will be illegal to replace existing furnaces with any sort of heating system powered by gas after 2023, while in Vancouver, as of this year, equipment for space and hot water heating must produce zero emissions, and from 2025, the same will apply for all new and replacement heating and hot water systems.
“There is a heightened focus on emissions reductions among communities,” says Leach, whose organisation seeks to support communities in Canada on their pathway to net-zero. “But the problem is that many of these community emissions plans are an oversimplified approach to eliminating these emissions.”
In the case of New York City, she says, the new restrictions mostly force buildings to rely on electricity for heating, but while this addresses end-use emissions, it leads to other emissions elsewhere. The city is striving towards carbon neutrality by 2050, but today its grid is 85% powered by fossil fuels. Electrifying heating also means a significant build-out of the electricity system to accommodate the extra demand.
“We've got communities and municipalities in Canada whose take is that fossil fuels are not acceptable, period,” Leach explains. “There isn’t really an understanding of the broader implications for the energy system as a whole. If you focus too much on emissions, you’re not paying enough attention to energy affordability and security.”
Alternatives such as renewable natural gas have also been rejected in some areas, she says. Much of the scrutiny about both conventional and renewable gases relates to methane emissions, but there is not a recognition that in most cases, renewable gas that is utilised is gas that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere anyway.
There are a range of other solutions for heating that are readily available, Leach continues. Heat pumps can be powered not only by electricity but also natural gas. Geothermal energy can be employed, as well as waste water heat recovery, and greater efficiency should continue to be a main pursuit.
“These are all technologies that can help prevent the need for a significant increase in electricity capacity and avoid the peaking challenge,” she says.
The director also calls for the need for greater innovation, pointing to a dual-energy solution that has been proposed in Quebec. There, Energir and Hydro-Quebec are looking to provide buildings with electricity-powered heat pumps that run for most of the time, backed up by gas heating systems that can be switched on when temperatures plunge. The pair estimate that the dual solution will reduce gas consumption by more than 70%, thereby curbing emissions.
“This helps with the issue of peak load. It means you don’t have to build massive amounts of electricity capacity that you only need for very small bands of time,” Leach says.
Municipalities have put themselves in "the driver's seat" in addressing emissions, but Leach believes that is because provinces and territories in Canada that bear the overall responsibility for energy planning have not put the right policies, regulation and legislation in place to align with their climate action plans.
"As climate impacts communities, communities don't feel they have the time to wait for the provinces and territories to update their policies, regulation and legislation, and are therefore taking the action that they can locally on end-use emissions," she says. "The only way they can control the 50% of emissions in Canada that come from communities is to put in place laws and policies that prevent the use of energy sources that contribute to local emissions."
Canada has a good track record for funding innovation in the energy sector, Leach believes. “But we’re notoriously bad at actually deploying and implementing that technology and scaling it,” she says. “What we’ve been ignoring is the need for innovative governance structures, innovative policy, innovative legislation and innovative business models.”
“We continue to produce more and more wonderful technology solutions, but we don’t actually see them being deployed at a level that would really make a change,” she says.
Concluding, Leach says it is difficult to assign blame for the challenges in heating policy to any single layer of government.
"The real issue is that our thinking and actions remain siloed. Siloed solutions do not and will never address the complexity of the issue," she says. "We need to take a systematic approach to the problem and put in place the appropriate governance structures to get to sustainable solutions."
All layers of government - municipal, regional, provincial, federal and indigenous - as well as energy utilities, system operators and producers, and all types of energy end-users, all have a role to play, according to Leach.
"But there is little clarity on who is expected to do what, what it will cost, and who is expected to pay," she says.
This article first appeared in Gas Pathways, a platform dedicated to technology and innovation in the natural gas industry. Click here for more information.