Texas power outage brings electrification-natural gas debate to a head

Akiko Fujita
·Anchor/Reporter
·6 min read

In the aftermath of the winter storm that knocked out power to millions of homes in Texas, the finger pointing against renewable energy has been swift.

Research shows the dangers of fossil fuels, including natural gas, but the recent winter storm that led to crippling power outages across regions in Texas has put into question the use of renewable energy instead of natural gas.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston) and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller blamed solar and wind energy for the power outages in their state. Abbott said renewable energy “thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis,” while Crenshaw tweeted “This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source.” Meanwhile, Miller said, in a Facebook post: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time.”

The criticism ignores the dominance of fossil fuel use in Texas, the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas in the U.S. But, it points to a growing unease brewing within the natural gas industry, as the public turns a critical eye towards its carbon footprint, and local electrification initiatives gain momentum nationwide.

"This is the most difficult thing for Texas to admit as a huge natural gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources and mechanical engineering Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Our natural gas system is not delivering what we need. They're all having trouble but this is really a natural gas problem more than anything else right now."

Methane natural gas has long been touted as a transitional fuel, a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity. At the height of the fracking boom in 2014, then President Barack Obama praised methane as a “bridge fuel” that would power the economy to a cleaner, low-carbon future, “if extracted safely.”

But as cities across the country race to reach aggressive targets laid out in the Paris Climate agreement, there is increasing skepticism around natural gas usage. While gas utilities have reduced methane emissions by 73% since 1990, according to the American Gas Association (AGA), a trade organization representing more than 200 natural gas suppliers, experts say its continued use doesn’t cut output deep enough, to get the country to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The climate implications are huge, whatever fossil fuel it is,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona Chapter of the Sierra Club, who has been waging a fight against the gas industry in the state, adding that natural gas may sound OK but it’s not.

Natural gas bans

The fight for full electrification in the U.S. has largely been at the local level so far. And the fault lines have formed predictably, along party politics. In California, more than 40 cities have adopted building codes that dramatically reduce their reliance on gas.

The city of San Jose, along with Berkeley has led the way. In 2019, San Jose became the largest in the country to ban natural gas in new construction. Since last year, the city has committed to zero net energy in 100% of new homes. Democratic Mayor Sam Liccardo said the goal is to make all homes all-electric by 2050.

“Buildings are critically important because we know that that is where an awful lot of emissions can be controlled relatively quickly, both through retrofits and through new construction,” he told Yahoo Finance. “By moving from gas to electric, not only are we improving the planet's health we're also improving our own health.”

Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an end to all fossil fuel connections in new construction by 2030. Denver aims to have all new homes electrified by 2024, while the Seattle City Council unanimously approved to update its energy codes, to ban most natural gas usage in some apartments and commercial buildings.

Zero-sum

AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert said 180 million Americans already rely on gas in their homes, and that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is not feasible or cost efficient. In fact, she said natural gas usage has contributed to a 73% cut in methane emissions since 1990.

“It's not a bridge fuel. It's not a bridge source of energy, and neither is our infrastructure,” she said. “And the amount of emissions further emissions that we can reduce, again, at your home is a very small part of the overall emissions picture of our country.”

Still, the industry has waged an aggressive campaign against efforts to phase out methane. When the Seattle City Council first drafted legislation to ban gas hookups in new buildings, Puget Sound Energy hired lobbying firm CBE Strategic, to “deploy a strong coalition of labor and business” to push back. In conservative states like Arizona, lawmakers have moved quickly to pass preemption laws that prevent gas bans from being debated, even though no such legislation has been introduced.

Arizona State House Representative Kristen Engel, a Democrat, said the preemption bill in her state was heavily funded by Southwest Gas, leading to the nickname “Southwest Gas Bill.”

“It really does seem to be the gas industry trying to get out ahead. They see what's happening in other parts of the country, maybe they hear or they think that the cities might follow suit,” Engel said. "And they're trying to get some action on the legislative level to just sort of cut that off at the pass."

Harbert said the AGA has never lobbied for state preemption bills, but supports the move to give customers an option, saying “you can't outright just tell people and mandate their energy choice.”

On social media, the AGA is framing the use of natural gas as a lifestyle choice, partnering with influencers to promote #cookwithgas to reach a younger demographic on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Other hashtags have been used to promote the industry’s work with frontline workers and food pantries during the pandemic, Harbert said.

“We will continue to use those platforms to reach out to the types of stakeholders that depend on natural gas,” she said. “Everybody loves to cook, particularly now that we're at home. And so, that's just another channel to get out a message about what natural gas does for you as an individual or as a foodie.”

Webber, who is also the chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, one of the largest electric and gas utilities, said the fight between the fossil fuel industry and renewable energy advocates shouldn’t be framed in a zero-sum context, in part because that takes away from efforts to further regulate the gas industry — actions that can be taken immediately.

“Is it a bridge to a future without gas ...or is it part of the destination as well. We don't know the answer yet,” he said. “Are we going to keep gas and add carbon capture, or keep gas but replace the gas with bio-gas, or keep gas but replace the gas with hydrogen? Are we going to get rid of the gas entirely? This is an open question.”

Aarthi Swaminathan contributed to this report

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita