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Portland-based natural gas utility shows how it can reduce carbon emissions

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - NW Natural stores natural gas distributed in the Portland area at the Mist plant here, northwest of Portland, in a vast underground holding area. At a time when President Donald Trump is forcing the federal government to disregard the threat from climate change, NW Natural is charting a strategy to achieve what it calls "aggressive greenhouse gas reductions."

The Portland-based utility's plan lays out how a company that sells fossil fuel can do its part to avert dramatic global warming — largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In briefings last week, NW Natural unveiled a game plan to voluntarily slash carbon emissions from that sector 30 percent by 2035, compared to 2015 levels.

"We believe there is a climate imperative," said Kim Heiting, NW Natural's chief marketing officer and vice president for communications, releasing what the utility calls its "low-carbon pathway."

Beyond 2035, Heiting said, the company realizes it has to go much further down the road to "deep de-carbonization."

The low-carbon pathway emerged from NW Natural's latest round of strategic planning completed in September, Heiting said. Though the strategy has the support of the corporation's board of directors, it only went public last week, when the utility briefed the Oregon Public Utility Commission, environment groups and other stakeholders.

It's unclear what the plan would do to customer energy prices. But now they're at historically low levels thanks to efficiency gains achieved by fracking techniques to extract natural gas. Fracking causes earthquakes and soils the land and water, and so far those impacts aren't factored into the low price of the energy.

How they do it

Last week's announcement that NW Natural is working with Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services to produce usable gas as a byproduct from the city's sewage treatment plant is a sign of things to come.

NW Natural has calculated that up to 25 percent of its current gas sales could be replaced by such "renewable natural gas," said Bill Edmonds, the utility's director of environmental management and sustainability. That gas is produced by converting and harnessing the methane released from sewage, landfills, dairy cattle and food waste, and using wood products as biofuels.

The biggest and cheapest way to cut its carbon emissions is to support energy efficiency projects in homes, businesses and institutions. "We have quantified that is very low-cost over a 20-year period," Edmonds said.

Another element of the new strategy is helping customers switch to solar thermal energy, which uses the sun to heat water for water heaters and swimming pools instead of natural gas. The company also will seek to provide more compressed natural gas or CNG for heavy-duty trucks, which requires expensive filling stations, such as one Portland just agreed to build at its sewage treatment plant to distribute the additional gas produced there.

NW Natural's strategy also calls for working with its suppliers that harvest natural gas via fracking, which wastes a considerable amount of methane due to leaks in the system. Though NW Natural doesn't control that directly, its strategy lists projects through the entire supply chain.

Tricky technologies

The company also hopes to explore "power to gas" projects. Those involve taking surplus renewable energy, such as when there's extra hydro power from raging rivers or wind energy during extremely blustery days, and converting that to hydrogen. Hydrogen can be mixed into the natural gas NW Natural sells, and can be stored underground as the utility does with natural gas.

Power to gas projects are under way now in Germany and the University of California at Irvine, Edmonds said.

Some of these ideas would enable NW Natural to increase its sales while taking advantage of its state-of-the art pipe distribution system, he said.

NW Natural is not ready to release precise numbers on the costs of projects, and would need to get the concurrence of the Public Utility Commission and customers, Heiting said.

Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, collaborated with NW Natural on an anaerobic digester at Threemile Canyon Farms, the states' first mega-dairy, to produce renewable natural gas from methane emissions there. He warns that such projects are still tricky technically. That one wound up producing "crappy fuel" because neither NW Natural nor Bonneville had control of the material used to produce the energy, he said.

There also have been some false starts trying to produce energy from food waste, including from Portland, Duncan said.

"Give NW Natural a pat on the butt for trying," he said, and let's hope they are "creative and reckless enough" to make some of these newer technologies work.

Different position

Portland's two big electric utilities, PGE and Pacific Power, can achieve dramatic reductions in their carbon footprint by shifting the source of electricity from coal and gas to wind, solar and other renewables — and face state mandates to do so.

NW Natural is in a different situation. Its sole product emits roughly half the carbon emissions of coal. When converted to compressed natural gas to power heavy-duty trucks, it emits far less air pollutants than diesel, which kills hundreds of Oregonians each year.

But environmentalists say in the long run Oregon must largely wean itself from natural gas if the state is to meet its climate change goals.

The new low-carbon pathway suggests NW Natural gets it, said Duncan, who also serves as chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. "I do think they're taking it quite seriously."

Dave Van't Hof, the acting Oregon director of Climate Solutions, also praised NW Natural for embarking on the low-carbon pathway.

"It's encouraging to see NW Natural step up as a climate leader with their new low-carbon plan," Van't Hof said. "I just think they know that this is the direction the industry is heading."

However, having an "aspirational goal" is not enough, he said, and illustrates why Oregon needs to put a price on carbon emissions, as specified by a bill before the Oregon Legislature.

That would give NW Natural longterm financial tools and incentives to carry out dramatic greenhouse gas reductions, he said.

NW Natural has reinvented itself before, Heiting noted. It was founded 158 years ago — before Oregon became a state — as the supplier of gas for Portland's city lights.

"We're progressive and we've proven it time and time again," she said.

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