Stanford didn’t surrender to his audience or audience when he hosted SoCalGas as part of his weekly Energy seminar May 17. The uncritical overview of a ‘net zero’ promise by a large gas utility with a track record of deceptive and even illegal strategies promoting natural gas was not suitable for a university that aims to raise a generation of leaders to fight climate change, and it could not help SoCalGas establish credibility or make meaningful connections.
To be clear, I am very much 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 remain solvent in our rapidly changing energy economy. They need help and we need to help them. But it does require an honest, fact-based conversation focused on the tough issues.
In 2019, more than 70% of SoCalGas revenue came from residential customers, who are increasingly turning to electric heating with encouragement from the state.
Over 70% of SoCalGas revenue comes from residential sales. Source: Energy Information Administration
How will SoCalGas maintain its infrastructure while its traditional source of revenue evaporates? If they are forced to increase prices, won’t that take more customers away from their product? As the largest gas utility in the United States, SoCalGas is well positioned to explore avenues and demonstrate how this transition can be achieved. They say they want to be a leader. It could have been a fascinating quantitative briefing outlining some of the challenges and key milestones, the lessons they learned along the way, and ideas on how their business could evolve.
Yet there were few. Chief Sustainability Officer Michelle Sim spent the first 15 minutes simply asking the audience to keep an open mind, using various personal anecdotes to illustrate her point. She then took a shallow walk through the corporate slick Presentation of the “net zero” commitment. Instead of using 15 minutes for Q&A like other presenters do, she spoke for part of that time and then showed a bland 5-minute marketing video that covered the same content. Maybe there was a question and it was softball.
I was appalled. I was appalled at Stanford’s obsequious and uncritical attitude in hosting this guest speaker. And I was appalled by SoCalGas’ reliance on mostly non-content marketing material to address an issue of growing importance to our state and our planet. The vast majority (96%) of SoCalGas emissions come from their customers’ use of the fuel they distribute. Yet they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the efficiency of their buildings and fleets, and their reduction in fugitive emissions, all of which are in the remaining 4%. During another recent interview with Ms Sim, after which she had talked about the company’s efforts to move to paperless billing and to replace the Styrofoam cups in their offices with ceramic coffee mugs, the interviewer exclaimed, “C is so amazing, because your company’s vision for sustainability is so comprehensive…. It goes beyond the product you are selling. No, it’s not unbelievable. It is a deeply cynical and ultimately harmful strategy. Distract yourself from what really matters – the company’s gasoline sales to homes and small businesses – by talking about everything else.
The International Energy Agency has just published a report detailing the actions he believes are needed to keep the planet below the 1.5 ° C warming threshold. There are huge opportunities for a cleaner, healthier and more equitable energy economy. But we must act immediately to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
California has been working in this direction for years and is now aggressively targeting gas in buildings, the source of the vast majority of SoCalGas’ revenue.
CARB proposals to accelerate in-depth decarbonization. Source: CARB presentation on deep decarbonization, November 2020
How will SoCalGas evolve in this context? Ms. Sim touched on some topics that are worth discussing. For example, SoCalGas has been running an effective energy efficiency program for years, and efficiency will continue to be very important to our buildings. How would they like to expand it and what policies would they like to see to support it? SoCalGas is also looking for ways to leverage its underground infrastructure and expertise in the evolution of the energy economy. Hydrogen will be needed at ports and airports, where batteries are likely to remain inadequate for heavy and long-haul transport such as shipping, airplanes and long-haul trains and trucks. What role can SoCalGas play and what are some of the challenges? Likewise, carbon capture may be necessary in hard-to-decarbonize areas such as cement manufacturing and seasonal resilience of the power supply. (1) Can SoCalGas expertise and infrastructure be used to transport CO2 from its source to its storage location?
Unfortunately, much of SoCalGas’ recent efforts have been addressed to support their residential business, for example by incorporating ‘renewable natural gas’, which appears to be at best. a short-term and costly strategy that’s not going to change. They are excited about their Home Hydrogen effort, on which one reviewer pointed out “I think their hydrogen house is probably the most expensive way to have a zero emission house I can imagine.” SoCalGas better align with the direction of California, abandoning its lawsuit against the state on its policies, ceasing to finance a lobbying front for gas homes, and instead focus on those other difficult and important areas.
The conference hosted by Stanford, with references to ‘pillars’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘digitization’, was a pablum fest of marketing rhetoric, interwoven with personal anecdotes about openness and openness. economy that did nothing to deepen our knowledge or interest. in the daunting challenges that SoCalGas and the rest of us face. To move forward at an adequate pace, we need to have honest and meaningful conversations that allow us to help each other. Unfortunately, Stanford and SoCalGas have shown exactly the opposite.
Notes and references
1. Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson valorizeunlike the IEA and a number of other organizations, that we can save money and time by duplicating existing technologies (wind, solar, batteries, geothermal and hydro) rather than pursuing more strategies. risky and potentially more expensive nuclear power and carbon capture.
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