July 12, 2019 - From the July, 2019 issue

Promoting Reliability & Growth with a Diverse Energy Portfolio

Renewable natural gas, created by converting organic waste into fuel, is a carbon negative energy source with successful deployment around the world. TPR spoke to the executive director of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, Jon Switalski, and board chair, Temecula City Councilmember, and CSU San Marcos Environmental Leadership Institute and Wildfire Program director Matt Rahn, to discuss the valuable role that renewable natural gas can play in supporting a resilient, all-of-the-above energy strategy that meets the state's emissions reduction goals and its residents’ need for affordable and reliable service.


Matt Rahn

"An important benefit of gas is that, even when we have power outages or controlled brownouts and blackouts, the gas will still be there." —Matt Rahn

Jon, what is the mission and focus of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions?

Jon Switalski: Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions is a coalition of natural and renewable gas suppliers and users. That makes us a very broad-based coalition, representing members of the public, small and large businesses, neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits.

Our starting point is opposing the call from Sacramento to eliminate the use of natural gas in homes and businesses and to compel Californians to use only electricity. We support measures to combat climate change, but we believe that our approach needs to be technology-neutral, and that is why we advocate for an all-of-the-above strategy. One of our goals is therefore to educate the public about the importance of natural and renewable gas for our economy and environment.

Additionally, we believe that mandates do not work. If we are going to bring consumers along with us on the path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, we cannot impose one-size-fits-all “solutions” that increase their costs and impact their quality of life. This is as much an equity and economic issue as it is an environmental issue. It touches Californians’ pocketbooks and their daily lives. That is why our board includes nonprofits, like the Southeast Churches Services Center in Southeast LA and Faith and Community Empowerment in Koreatown; businesses, like the California Association of Realtors and California Steel Industries; industrial manufacturers, like MCA Tile; and unions.

What enticed each of you to join the leadership of C4BES? How does its vision connect to your prior experience?

Jon Switalski: I’ve done a lot of environmental work, and I remain committed to reducing human impacts on the climate. I’ve recently moved my focus from the political space to the advocacy space.

As a state legislator in Michigan, I led the charge to adopt clean and renewable energy policies, and I drove state regulators and the governor to move away from coal and toward wind and solar. I continue to do so through C4BES, which supports wind and solar as part of our energy solution—just not the only part.

Matt Rahn: I’ve been working in education and research related to the environment and energy for close to 20 years. I’m now a professor at the Environmental Leadership Academy, in addition to serving on the Temecula City Council. I teach and speak often on the importance of balanced energy sources: not only keeping multiple options open, but also considering stability as well as environmental sustainability as we make choices.

We all want the same things: a high quality of life, a successful and prosperous economy, and clean water and air. For me, the key is bringing folks together, having the conversation about balanced and sustainable options, and educating decisionmakers and the public about the consequences of the choices we make. This isn’t the typical conversation in California’s energy field right now. But CB4ES was having it, and that made us a natural fit. I was happy to help create this organization. 

What is the role of organic waste in an all-of-the-above energy portfolio, and how is it reflected (or not) in California policy?

Jon Switalski: Organic waste is a critical resource. The state legislature has mandated the reduction of emissions from short-lived greenhouse gases—that is, methane—the primary source of which is dairy farms. Converting that methane into renewable natural gas and using it as a transportation fuel actually has a negative carbon impact. It makes all the sense in the world to do this, and in fact, I don’t see how we could meet our emissions reduction goals if we don’t.

However, there are strong forces in Sacramento committed to the ideology that there is only one way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—electrification—and that we shouldn’t be using all of our assets to do so. We strongly disagree.

The devastation caused by recent fires appears to challenge the electrification-only agenda. Matt, what are your thoughts about resilience in the “new normal” of climate change?

Matt Rahn: We need to make a deep commitment to protecting our communities as well as managing our landscapes in a resilient manner. Certainly, the choices we make for energy sources have a lot to do with that.

All over the country, we allow development to occur in high-risk areas—whether the risk is hurricanes, floods, or fires. The choice to place communities and infrastructure in these high-risk areas shouldn’t be taken lightly. We should be doing everything we can to create the most resilient communities possible in order to protect that infrastructure, those resources, and those lives.

At the same time, we have obligations—not only intrinsically, but also under the law—to protect our watersheds, air quality, habitats, and ecosystems. It is incumbent upon us to create the highest possible standards for protections. That’s what we’re learning in California: Our development choices can come at high risk of incredible devastation. 

The California Public Utilities Commission recently ruled that, to prevent catastrophic wildfires, utilities can shut off electricity to vulnerable areas during extreme weather conditions. What does this mean for the role of natural gas in California communities?

Jon Switalski: Renewable natural gas is an important part of our energy supply. When it comes to resilience and public safety, we can’t put all our eggs in one basket; that is, we can’t let all our emissions reduction plans hinge on the electric grid. The impacts of these devastating and unfortunate wildfires on our communities, and the subsequent bankruptcy of PG&E, have proven that we need to diversify our energy sources.

We also need to diversify our decarbonization efforts to encompass all types of energy infrastructure. Just as we’re decarbonizing our electricity supply, we need to decarbonize our gas supply. That means using renewable natural gas.

Matt Rahn: This is an important benefit of gas: It will always be on. Even when we have power outages or controlled brownouts and blackouts, the gas will still be there.

I recently read an article arguing that we don’t need natural gas as a backup energy source in case of wildfires because the services it provides—heating, hot water, cooking, etc.—aren’t necessary during the summer fire season. That was a big misstatement. Around half of the largest fires in California’s history, including some of our most recent, have occurred during wintertime, when many communities do need heating, not to mention hot water and the ability to cook. We can’t overlook their needs.

A growing piece of California’s climate strategy is decarbonizing the built environment through electrification. Speak to the equity and environmental implications of an electrification-only decarbonization strategy.

Jon Switalski: We can decarbonize the built environment with renewable natural gas. In fact, it achieves greenhouse gas emissions reductions to the same extent that building electrification does.

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Often, we talk about climate action in complicated policy terms. But at the end of the day, we should be talking about it through lens of equity and reducing costs for those who can least afford it. If California pursues only one avenue to decarbonization—electricity—we will intensify the negative ramifications for residents.

As just one example, people all across California make their livelihoods operating food trucks or sidewalk stands. How can we say to members of our community that, out of respect for their culture and livelihood, we’re going to legalize street vending—and then turn around and ban the fuel they use to do it?

As another example: Let’s say five years from now, you go to Home Depot to replace your gas stove, but no gas stove is available because California regulators have banned them. That creates significant costs for you. Not only is the appliance more expensive, but now you also have to invest in rewiring your home. Moreover, you will start to see higher utility bills.

California already has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, as well as the highest overall housing costs. These costs are pushing tens of thousands of Californians onto the streets. Why would we make that burden even heavier? There’s a huge equity issue here, and I have not heard our regulators effectively address it.

It just shocks me that California doesn’t have an energy policy that takes human impact into consideration. Every day, people have to choose between paying their utility bills, putting gas in their cars, and going to the grocery store. How many of our regulators have had to make that decision lately?

We have serious issues in California. Yet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, we need the participation of every Californian. That means we can’t mandate policies that work for San Francisco but don’t work for LA County. We have to bring everyone along. That is the core of what C4BES is fighting for.

Matt Rahn: From an environmental perspective, the conversation about electrification simply isn’t honest or balanced. If you want to have an honest conversation about electrification, then let’s talk about the costs as well as the benefits.

I’ve done research on wind energy, solar energy, and waste-to-energy in order to truly understand how each of these options might affect our environment. No energy source is without some kind of environmental and societal impact, including electricity. Just because it doesn’t actively emit a pollutant, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a carbon impact.

Renewable electricity infrastructure—solar panels, wind farms, etc.—has a significant carbon footprint before it ever hits the ground. For example, the materials to create industrial-scale solar and wind projects have to get mined and processed somewhere, and a lot of them are conflict minerals that are not ethically sourced. More importantly, converting vast acreages of native habitat—even desert land—has significant environmental impacts. It disrupts the biological activity behind the natural carbon cycle, both releasing carbon into the atmosphere and destroying the potential for carbon capture in the soil.

Once these products are built, they are transported to California from all over the world. That is another impact. Then, they continue to impact our environment while in operation. Finally, at the end of their useful lives, they pose the problem of safe disposal of hazardous materials.

I’m not saying that natural gas and other energy sources don’t also have adverse impacts. What I’m saying is that, if we’re going to do an apples-to-apples comparison, we need to track the entire life cycle and footprint of each option. And what we will find is that there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution for our energy needs. All options need to be on the table.

We can’t ignore the opportunity to recycle organic material—and even potentially plastics and papers—into an energy resource. We can close the loop. The more recycled natural gas we use in our pipelines, the more significant the environmental benefit compared to electrification alone. None of this is talked about in the state’s conversations about electrification today.

What do you think is standing in the way of having those “honest conversations” about California’s energy portfolio?

Matt Rahn: Candidly, it’s special interests. A lot of misinformation is being disseminated by groups that have a particular bias, or even an undisclosed stake in electrification.

One of those groups is the Sierra Club. They push for full electrification and often highlight the issues related to natural gas. At the same time, they’re signed onto a program that gives them $750 for every new rooftop solar array. In other words, they’re financially benefitting from electrification. They’re coming to the table with an agenda, and it suits them to ignore the downsides of electrification and the benefits of recycled natural gas or even carbon capture.

That’s one of the biggest problems in creating a balanced energy conversation in California: getting people to admit that every single source of energy has both costs and benefits. It’s incumbent upon our state leadership to look at all options extremely carefully and prioritize them based on carbon content as well as the needs of our communities and economy.

Jon, how can the conversation in California be informed by the energy strategies in place around the world, such as in Québec and Western Europe?

Jon Switalski: There are lessons to be learned from Canada and Western Europe. One notable example is what happened when Germany pursued an all-electric strategy; not only did it not work, but it also had serious negative consequences. Our legislators and regulators need to take note of the experiences others have had and take seriously which models did and didn’t work. That’s common sense. Instead, we are ignoring every roadmap that exists and heading in our own direction, and I believe that’s short-sighted. 

Finally, what are C4BES’s next steps and priorities in terms of driving California’s energy policy toward an all-of-the-above approach?

Jon Switalski: C4BES is a party to the building decarbonization proceedings, and we will engage the PUC through that process. Our goal is to ensure that the voices of residents receiving utility assistance are heard because they can’t already afford the electricity rates, as well as the voices of the nonprofits providing that assistance.

But our most important work will likely happen outside the PUC. These proceedings are not accessible to the vast majority of Californians; they’re built by and for regulatory attorneys, not for regular folks. We’re going to take this issue out of the powerful halls of Sacramento and straight to people’s doorsteps. We believe that once people hear and understand the consequences these proceedings could have on their everyday lives, they’ll be motivated to contact their representatives and get involved.

When you really drill into these mandates for complete electrification, you realize that the ramifications are far and wide. It’s my job to ensure that the people most affected get to make their voices heard.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.