Stanford did not do itself or its audience any favors when it hosted SoCalGas as part of its weekly Energy Seminar on May 17. The uncritical overview of a “net zero” pledge by a large gas utility with a history of misleading and even illegal strategies to promote natural gas was unbefitting of a university that aims to raise a generation of leaders to combat climate change, and it cannot have helped SoCalGas establish any credibility or make meaningful connections.
To be clear, I am all in favor of inviting oil and gas companies and utilities to participate in this forum. These companies need to reinvent themselves to stay aligned with our fight against climate change and to stay solvent in our quickly changing energy economy. They need help and we should help them. But that requires an honest, fact-based conversation focused on the difficult issues.
In 2019 over 70% of SoCalGas’ revenue came from residential customers, who are increasingly switching to electric heat with the state’s encouragement.
Over 70% of SoCalGas revenue comes from residential sales. Source: Energy Information Administration
How will SoCalGas maintain their infrastructure while their traditional source of revenue evaporates? If they are forced to increase rates, won’t that push more customers away from their product? As the largest gas distribution utility in the United States, SoCalGas is in a good position to explore paths and demonstrate how this transition can be made. They say they want to be a leader. This could have been a fascinating, quantitative talk laying out some of the challenges and key milestones, lessons they have learned along the way, and ideas for how their business might evolve.
Yet there was little of that. Director of Sustainability Michelle Sim spent the first 15 minutes or so simply asking the audience to keep an open mind, using various personal anecdotes to illustrate her point. She then took a superficial walk through the company’s slick “net zero” commitment presentation. Instead of using 15 minutes for Q&A, as other presenters do, she talked through some of that time, then showed a bland 5-minute marketing video that went over the same content. There was maybe one question and it was a softball.
I was dismayed. I was dismayed by Stanford’s obsequious and uncritical attitude in hosting this guest speaker. And I was dismayed by SoCalGas’ reliance on mostly content-free marketing material to address an issue of increasing importance to our state and our planet. The vast majority (96%) of SoCalGas’ emissions come from their customers’ use of the fuel that they distribute. Yet they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the efficiency of their buildings and fleet, and their reduction of fugitive emissions, all of which are in the remaining 4%. During another recent interview with Ms. Sim, after which she’d talked about the company’s efforts to switch to paperless billing and to replace styrofoam cups in their offices with ceramic coffee mugs, the interviewer gushed “It’s so incredible, because your company’s view of sustainability is so comprehensive…. It extends beyond just the product that you sell.” No. No, it’s not incredible. It’s a deeply cynical and ultimately harmful strategy. Distract from the thing that really matters — the company’s sales of gas to homes and small businesses — by talking about everything else.
The International Energy Agency just released a report detailing what actions it believes are needed for the planet to stay below the 1.5C of warming threshold. There is tremendous opportunity for a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable energy economy. But we need to act immediately to wean ourselves from fossil fuel.
California has been acting along these lines for years, and is now aggressively targeting gas in buildings, the source of the vast majority of SoCalGas’ revenue.
CARB proposals to accelerate deep decarbonization. Source: CARB Presentation on Deep Decarbonization, November 2020
How will SoCalGas evolve in this context? Ms. Sim did touch on some topics worth going into. For example, SoCalGas has led an effective energy efficiency program for years, and efficiency will continue to be very important for our buildings. How would they like to expand on it, and what policies would they like to see to support it? SoCalGas is also looking for ways to make use of their underground infrastructure and expertise in the evolving energy economy. Hydrogen will be needed at ports and airports, where batteries are likely to remain inadequate for heavy, long-haul transport like shipping, planes, and long-distance rail and trucks. What role can SoCalGas play, and what are some of the challenges? Similarly, carbon capture may be needed for tough-to-decarbonize areas like cement manufacturing and seasonal resilience in the power supply. (1) Can SoCalGas expertise and infrastructure be used to transport the CO2 from the source to where it will be stored?
Unfortunately, much of SoCalGas’ recent effort has been addressed at propping up their residential business, for example by blending in “renewable natural gas”, which appears to be at best a short-term and pricy strategy that won’t scale. They are excited about their Hydrogen Home effort, about which one critic remarked “I think their hydrogen home is probably the single most expensive way to have a zero-emissions home that I can possibly imagine.” SoCalGas would be better off aligning with California’s direction, abandoning its lawsuit against the state over its policies, ceasing to fund a lobbying front for gas-powered homes, and instead focusing on these other difficult and important areas.
The talk that Stanford hosted, complete with references to “pillars” and “intersectionality” and “digitalization”, was a pablum fest of marketing speak, interlaced with personal anecdotes about open-mindedness and thriftiness that did nothing to further our knowledge of or interest in the steep challenges that SoCalGas and the rest of us are facing. To push ahead at an adequate pace, we need to have honest and substantial conversations that enable us to help each other. Unfortunately, Stanford and SoCalGas demonstrated just the opposite.
Notes and References
1. Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson argues, contrary to the IEA and a number of other organizations, that we can save both money and time by doubling down on existing technologies (wind, solar, batteries, geothermal, and hydro) rather than pursuing the riskier and potentially costlier strategies of nuclear energy and carbon capture.
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