Natural gas firms crave the limelight; Distributors worried they're being forgotten
The Toronto Star: Tyler Hamilton - April 1, 2008
Don't forget about us.
That's the message Ontario's two natural-gas distribution companies, Union Gas and Enbridge Gas Distribution, will bring to a series of high-level meetings at Queen's Park today to promote the benefits of using the flexible fuel.
With all the talk of building new nuclear power plants and expanding the use of renewable power and conservation programs in the province, the natural gas sector is looking for a little love these days, not to mention recognition of its strategic place in Ontario's energy mix.
"Every time I've listened to a politician speak about energy, or energy plans, I have not heard a speech yet that has been explicit about natural gas as a potential solution," said Julie Dill, president of Union Gas. "That's a problem for us."
It's a problem because bringing natural gas to Ontario industry, consumers and gas-fired power plants requires ongoing investment in pipeline infrastructure and storage facilities. It's an investment that must be justified, so Dill and Janet Holder, president of Enbridge Gas, will be seeking assurances from government that their industry has a reason to keep spending.
They'll come armed with a "smart gas" strategy paper and a wish-list of recommendations.
Those include incentives to expand and refurbish critical infrastructure; changes to the building code so new homes are pre-piped for natural gas appliances; more support for the development of natural gas storage capability; and financial help for low-income households still using inefficient furnaces or electric heating.
"The essence of our smart gas strategy is that natural gas should be used where it is the most efficient, affordable and environmentally sustainable fuel, " according to the paper, prepared by the Canadian Gas Association.
Keith Stewart, an energy expert with WWF-Canada, said it's clear that we need natural gas, a relatively clean source of energy in the hierarchy of fossil fuels. Less clear is where to draw the line. "Our position is that natural gas is an important transitional fuel. The tricky part is, how do you use it to displace coal, but not to displace renewables and conservation?"
Holder said natural gas complements renewables by bringing reliability to wind, solar and other intermittent sources of clean energy - what the industry calls hybrid energy systems. At the same time, she pointed out, Enbridge and Union Gas are given generous incentives to encourage conservation.
"It amazes me," Holder said. "We have more people here in Toronto working on reducing our demand than on creating it."
Part of this is through direct promotion of conservation, but it's also because of the increased efficiency over the years of the appliances that use natural gas. Union says its customers, on average, are using 1.8 per cent less gas annually. "When we look at comparison to household use back in 1990, we're using a third less gas today," Dill said.
Last year alone, she added, efficiency and conservation removed the equivalent of 36,000 gas-using homes from Union Gas's system. By comparison, only 25,000 new customers were added.
But reduced use in the home is being offset by increased reliance on the grid. The Ontario Power Authority estimates that electricity generation from natural gas will jump by as much as 80 per cent between now and 2019 - largely to bridge the gap between the coal-fired power plant closings in 2014 and the opening of a new nuclear plant by 2018.
About 6 per cent of that power will come from inefficient single-cycle gas plants, many of which will be scattered throughout southern Ontario. In some communities, such as northern York Region, public opposition to proposed plants is growing fiercely.
Norm Rubin, an analyst with Energy Probe, said he is concerned with the "huge uncertainties" related to the future price of natural gas and its availability. Supply of conventional natural gas has been declining in North America, while plans for liquefied natural gas plants have failed to deliver because of problems in finding overseas gas supply.