Here's why both businesses and homes need to take steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions

More than half of all B.C. homes are heated by natural gas. It’s roughly a third of the cost of electric heat, so it’s easy to see why more than 20,000 homes and businesses across the province signed up for natural gas in 2017 alone.

“It’s all about the energy efficiency, the low cost for home heating... There are so many advantages to the end-users,” says Nick Bray, director of design at Project Mint Developments, which installs natural gas boilers in the homes it builds. “And every house we’ve built has a gas fireplace. It’s really the centre of the home. You lose the fireplace, you lose the heart of the home.”

However, this relatively clean burning fuel has critics who believe it has no place in a future that must be devoted to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

GHG goals

Recently, the B.C. government released revised GHG emissions legislation for the next three decades. To meet its targets, the government as well as B.C. businesses and citizens all need to re-examine our use of energy—and energy providers need to evolve their offerings. Can natural gas be part of a sustainable solution? Let’s look at a few key innovations...

Locally made carbon neutral energy, made from food scraps

B.C. has led the way in the development of Renewable Natural Gas (RNG)—a carbon-neutral biogas offered by FortisBC, produced in partnership with local farmers and municipalities using organic waste like cow manure and food scraps. RNG blends with conventional natural gas, providing the same reliability, safety and efficiency.

More than 9,600 homes and businesses are voluntarily paying a little extra each month to participate in FortisBC’s RNG program, and interest continues to grow. B.C.-owned and -operated grocery chain Choices Markets signed up for RNG in 2017.

“It was a natural fit to align ourselves with FortisBC and use Renewable Natural Gas, especially since it's produced locally in B.C.," says Jon Janower, Choices Markets' chief operating officer. "We strive to be more sustainable in every facet of our business.”

Hydrogen + natural gas = an ideal blend?

One way to reduce the carbon intensity of natural gas may be to blend it with hydrogen gas, which is carbon-free. Hydrogen carries energy potential comparable to many fossil fuels, but it faces several economic and technical challenges as an energy source on its own. However, it could replace up to 15 percent of the existing natural gas stream without any changes to infrastructure or equipment.

Tackling transportation emissions

B.C.’s transportation industry is responsible for the largest share of GHG emissions in the province. Industry leaders are increasingly switching their commercial vehicles from diesel or gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG), a lower carbon fuel. Natural gas vehicles are quieter and provide a 20 to 30 percent GHG reduction at roughly half the price of traditional fuels, making it an easy choice for many businesses and municipalities.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) can also be used as fuel for certain vehicles, as well as marine vessels. LNG can reduce GHG emissions by up to 25 percent compared with bunker oil, a common maritime fuel. According to Sarah Smith, FortisBC’s director of natural gas transportation and regional LNG, the current level of GHG emissions from ships coming into BC is 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Using LNG for fuel would lower those emissions by close to a third. “This emission reduction would be like removing about 4.7 million passenger vehicles from the road,” Smith says.

The bottom line: multiple solutions needed

British Columbia’s 2016 Climate Leadership Plan recognized the role of natural gas as the cleanest burning fuel offering “an opportunity to shift global economies off GHG-intensive fuels like coal and oil to reduce worldwide emissions.”

While it’s not the only answer, natural gas innovations are an important piece of the puzzle, allowing homes and businesses to save money while being part of the solution.

“The rate at which new technologies are developed is accelerating and recent breakthroughs are pushing natural gas into a key role in a low-carbon, affordable energy mix,” says Ken Ross, FortisBC’s manager of integrated resource planning. “We know things will change dramatically in the next two decades and we plan to be at the forefront of energy innovations.”