Natural Gas Bans Aren’t the Solution Policymakers Think, Instead More Problems Arise
The Midwest’s energy priorities are in a state of serious flux, and it’s occurring at a time when achieving energy security is as important as ever. The region is seeing a rapid increase in policy shifts to meet its stated climate goals and attempting to reduce the use of natural gas for power generation and space heating. While measures to reduce greenhouse gases in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota are plausible, these measures don’t take into consideration natural gas’ role in addressing residential concerns for reliability, affordability, or the Midwest’s harsh winters.
Achieving climate and energy security goals across the Midwest is a process that still very much involve fossil fuels. Failure to ensure reliable supplies of energy will force states like Illinois to start, and those like Michigan to continue, importing energy to meet their needs.
A report by PJM Interconnection concludes that the closing of energy plants in Illinois will create a capacity gap that will force the area to import energy after decades of affordable electricity rates in Northern Illinois thanks to a surplus of in-state generation. The report estimates that rates may rise, squeezing residents, eroding an economic advantage for the Chicago area, and leaving the region without equally reliable substitutes.
Neighboring Michigan already spends billions to import energy, receiving between 18 to 31 percent of their annual electricity supply from out-of-state. However, while the closure of coal plants and the expansion of renewable energy resources reduced emissions in Michigan by 24 percent since 2005, this was only made possible with natural gas consumption for the electric power sector more than tripling since 2011 to ensure reliability.
Failure to ensure natural gas as part of the region’s climate reduction plans could mean increased energy prices for residents and businesses while decreasing energy security for the long winter nights and windless days. Midwestern states should be aware that even California with its fair weather and the high daily average of solar irradiance has seen rate increases with natural gas power plant closures and multiday flex alerts to conserve power during peak demand.
Rising Gas Ban Adoption
The lack of consideration of natural gas’ importance has manifested in the rise of residential gas bans across the region which threaten residential comfort and heating affordability.
In Chicago’s 2022 Energy Transformation code, it was mandated that all new residential buildings are built with stronger energy efficiency and electrification standards. The new requirement went into effect on November 1st and accounts for all new building permit applications. While the code didn’t explicitly ban natural gas, it has opened the door to organizations that have submitted over two-dozen recommendations to reduce emissions by mandating that new residential or commercial buildings be completely fossil-fuel-free. Their recommendations include builders be charged a “fossil fuel mitigation fee” for projects that choose to use natural gas.
Across the Great Lakes, Minnesota is acting as another driver of decarbonization efforts in the Midwest. The state has set goals to cut 50 percent of emissions from current buildings in 13 years, which includes the state’s promotion of federal funding opportunities to increase the use of heat pumps and other electrical infrastructure.
The Michigan Environmental Council’s chief policy officer, Charlotte Jameson, stated that to achieve climate change goals and energy efficiency moving away from fossil fuel-dependent buildings is “one of the only administrative tools we have to ensure that homes and buildings are really efficient.”
What wasn’t said was that Michigan’s Healthy Energy Plan aims to limit the energy burden from powering and heating homes for low-income households, but electricity is three times the price of natural gas on a per-unit basis. Michigan Sen. Dale Zorn (R-17) has described efforts to ban natural gas as “environmental extremism” and one that would have a huge impact on families and small businesses in the region.
And further north, Minnesota’s Climate Action Framework would increase building efficiency as a productive method to reduce emissions and residential costs. However, the notion that Minnesota will ban natural gas for a legislative win when homes across the state are in dire need of energy efficiency interventions, weatherization, and repairs is concerning.
Weatherization work in Minnesota has been underfunded, leading a 2019 report from a legislative work group to conclude that “at the rate of funding then, it would take 291 years to work through all the homes that were eligible for the state program.” This doesn’t include homes that can’t be weatherized because of roof damage, mold, or other disqualifying conditions.
In a region with notoriously harsh winters, where 64 percent of homes use natural gas for space heating, the prospect of banning natural gas in the Midwest as residents approach the time of year when energy demand surges as consumers attempt to stay warm is not the appropriate move. Mandating the electrification of buildings in the Midwest is a lengthy process that can be expensive and often not easily feasible for families and small businesses who must make renovations to be compliant. Residents encountering unreasonably cold and snowy weather, higher prices, and less reliability will face a tough winter if they have to reduce their usage of natural gas and rely on electric appliances.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped environmental organizations from trying. Recently, the Midwest Building Coalition hosted its second annual Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition Equity Summit. During the event, speakers with backgrounds such as academia, business, and non-profit organizations came together to discuss how to electrify the region.
Bottomline: Decarbonizing the Midwest should not place residents at risk. Despite constant scrutiny, natural gas helps to achieve emissions reduction goals, while simultaneously providing efficient and low-emission energy. Removing it from the region’s energy portfolio will lead to price increases ranging anywhere from 38 to 46 percent on consumer energy bills and increased risks of failing to meet energy consumption demands.
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