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Northwest Natural Gas Company's Plan For A Carbon Neutral Gas System

NOEL KING, HOST:

Fossil fuel companies are facing an existential threat. Governments and businesses are promising to zero out carbon emissions to fight climate change. In fact, President Biden wants to do that for the entire U.S. economy by the middle of this century. So a growing number of gas companies have their own plans to decarbonize. Here's Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: Darren Arnold lights the burners on a natural gas stove at a testing facility near Portland, Ore. He's using a new lower carbon gas mixture for Northwest Natural, a gas utility that serves nearly 800,000 customers.

DARREN ARNOLD: For a cook top burner, we're looking for a nice blue flame, nice little peaks on the tips of the flame.

PROFITA: It works just like a regular gas stove. And that's a key part of his company's plan to build a carbon-neutral gas system by 2050. Kim Heiting is the senior vice president of operations for Northwest Natural. She says her company's pipelines, a vast network of them, don't have to deliver fossil fuels.

KIM HEITING: Let's use them differently. Let's think about the gas grid as we think about the electric grid and just change what's going through those pipes.

PROFITA: She says Northwest Natural could continue fueling home furnaces, appliances and industrial plants with renewable natural gas. Here's how it would work. First, they'd capture the methane that's being emitted from rotting food, cow manure and sewage treatment plants and put that gas into the company's pipelines. Heiting says burning that is a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions...

HEITING: And providing a very similar climate benefit to wind and solar.

PROFITA: The supply of waste methane is limited, though, so the company would then mix that lower carbon gas with hydrogen gas, which has no carbon emissions. Heiting says her company could even make its own hydrogen gas. Northwest Natural is talking with an electric utility about building a production plant. It would use renewable electricity to make hydrogen gas by splitting the hydrogen from the oxygen in water.

HEITING: Think about the natural gas distribution and storage system as a massive battery for wind and solar energy.

EVAN RAMSEY: The rest of the world is kind of already on this. And in the U.S., we're a little bit behind.

PROFITA: Evan Ramsey works with the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation to increase renewable energy. He says making hydrogen would be a great way to use the extra wind, solar and hydropower that we can't easily store. The European Union is already offering incentives for companies to do just that.

RAMSEY: Hydrogen is pretty well suited to solve a lot of problems at once and really be this unifier between renewable energy and our society's energy needs.

PROFITA: But Sasan Saadat with the environmental group Earthjustice says renewable gas simply can't replace all the natural gas we're using today.

SASAN SAADAT: You don't even have enough of this gas to make more than a dent in the overall gas demand.

PROFITA: There's also a limit to how much hydrogen you can use in metal pipes without causing damage, he says. And a lot of waste methane isn't renewable in the same way as wind and solar.

SAADAT: You know, the sun has to shine and the wind has to blow. But we don't have to raise animals on factory farms that create these lagoons of manure that generate this amount of methane.

PROFITA: Saadat says we'll have to use way less gas to completely get rid of carbon emissions. His group is pushing cities to outright ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. Gas companies agree gas use will decline. Northwest Natural plans to increase energy efficiency. But by switching to renewable gas, they hope to have a place in a net zero future, even if it's a smaller one.

For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "THOUSAND-HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.