by Andy Ferguson, North Bay Clean Energy Forum
“We don’t get to our greenhouse gas goals unless we supplant (natural) gas”
–California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker
At a recent public meeting, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Michael Picker acknowledged the urgency to move away from the use of natural gas and adopt non-fossil fuel alternatives for heating in buildings (which includes heating water). While Natural gas is currently the most widely used fuel for this purpose, that gas emits at least 14 lbs of CO2 per therm of gas consumed, with typical CA households using around 540 therms per year for water and space heating (source: PG&E). Moreover, recent scientific research indicates that the true amount of global warming caused by such emissions far exceeds former estimates due to the effects of methane, the main component in natural gas. Methane is leaked into the atmosphere during natural gas well drilling, recovery, and distribution to consumers, as well as at power plants that utilize natural gas for fuel. A recent article in the Economist laid bare the issues with methane leaks during natural gas production after the Aliso Canyon methane leak that forced the evacuation of thousands of homes in Los Angeles.
New, highly efficient electric appliances such as heat pump water heaters (such as those pictured above) and ductless heat pumps offer attractive and relatively inexpensive alternatives to traditional natural gas appliances. Using electricity, these technologies can be easily installed in homes and offices to offer efficient, “carbon free” water and space heating. Moreover, the same heat pumps offer air conditioning as well. The North Bay Clean Energy Forum recently released a white paper outlining these options.
The “Three Prong Test” Challenged
At the Santa Rosa CPUC public meeting on April 6th, various speakers spoke out against the “Three Prong Test” now used by the CPUC to determine the use of ratepayer funds to support such new, cleaner technologies. California ratepayer funds finance programs to achieve energy efficiency, but the use of these monies to support fuel switching (from natural gas to the new technologies described above) is severely limited under a procedure called the “Three Prong Test.” At least twenty-five major public groups or load serving entities, including the Sierra Club, the Solar Energy Industries Association, the NRDC, Sonoma Clean Power and others have petitioned the CPUC to remove the restrictions set forth under the “Three Prong Test.” The proposal is currently under consideration by the California Public Energy Commission.