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Economy

The Gas Utility Trying to Break Up with Fossil Fuels

Vermont’s natural gas company is selling heat pumps and rebranding itself a “thermal service provider.”

Gas meters.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

On a recent Friday morning, I sat down to watch a webinar about a natural gas utility and unexpectedly found myself glued to the screen.

The video featured Morgan Hood, the new product development manager at a small utility once called Vermont Gas Systems, now known simply as VGS, that serves about 55,000 customers in its titular state. For 80 minutes Hood described how the company was working to reinvent itself as a “thermal solutions provider.” As part of that mission, it had recently started selling and leasing electric heat pump water and space heaters to its customers to help them reduce their gas use.

As a reporter who has covered natural gas utilities’ expansion plans and the industry’s all-out war on electrification, I was stunned. The programs alone were unusual, but what surprised me more was the way Hood talked about them.

“If we want to continue to serve our customers, which we do, significant changes are necessary,” she said, describing a “dramatic shift” in public sentiment toward natural gas in Vermont. “We know we're not going to be expanding our customer base with natural gas customers in the future.”

It’s hard to overstate how different Hood’s tone and message were from that of the average gas utility executive, who tends to highlight their product’s popularity and make a case for its role in a low-carbon future. Consider the remarks of Kim Greene, the CEO of the much larger Southern Company Gas, at a conference I attended in November. “Natural gas is foundational to America's clean energy future," she told an audience of state regulators. Without ever once acknowledging that natural gas contributes to climate change, she went on to describe it as a “magical molecule” that was important to the company’s decarbonization strategy.

When I later probed climate advocates in Vermont about VGS, I learned that many dismiss the company’s image change as greenwashing, or are at least skeptical of its plans. They pointed to a highly contested $165 million pipeline the company recently built, and a controversial plan to replace the fuel in its pipelines with biogas and hydrogen.

But my initial impressions also weren’t unfounded. The company does in fact seem to be unique in the way it has actively started leaning into the shift that science, policy, and economics are all driving toward — a transition to all-electric buildings.

“VGS is among the most progressive gas utilities in the country, there's no question about that,” Ben Walsh, the climate and energy program director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and a longtime critic of VGS, told me.

The company still has a lot to figure out. Hood was remarkably transparent in acknowledging that the new products VGS is offering aren’t nearly as profitable as selling natural gas. But its recent past and its uncertain future make it a revealing case study of the challenges gas companies face in trying to stay viable as they try to decarbonize.


The webinar, titled “A Gas Utility Goes Electric,” was organized by a Portland, Oregon-based advocacy group called Electrify Now. Its co-founder Brian Stewart told me he initially had some reservations about featuring a gas utility in their event series, but he and his partners were impressed with the company’s interest in engaging with an electrification group. They hoped the talk might reveal a model that other utilities could follow — particularly Northwest Natural, their local gas utility in Oregon.

“They're doing the exact opposite of what VGS is at least attempting to do,” Stewart said. “Northwest Natural is still denying the idea that electrification is even better from an emissions standpoint.”

In fact, Northwest Natural is not just denying it — it’s reportedly putting millions of dollars into opposing electrification. In February, the Oregon city of Eugene passed an ordinance banning gas hookups in new residential buildings. Northwest Natural responded by spending more than $900,000 to get a measure to overturn the gas ban on the city’s November ballot, according to campaign finance records reviewed by The Washington Post. And it’s just getting started. The Post obtained audio indicating that the gas industry plans to spend $4 million on the Eugene referendum.

The strategy has been widely adopted by the gas industry. Last year, a utility in Southern California, SoCalGas, was fined $10 million for spending ratepayer funds to fight stronger building efficiency standards that would have reduced natural gas demand. New York Focusreported last week that National Fuel, a gas utility in Western New York, is spending hundreds of thousands of ratepayer dollars to lobby against a statewide push to reduce natural gas use.

VGS, on the other hand, first signaled it was reading the writing on the wall for natural gas in 2019, when it announced a new strategy to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That was around the time state leaders were contemplating a new climate law called the Global Warming Solutions Act, which passed the following year. VGS hired a new CEO, Neale Lunderville, who reorganized the company, creating new positions focused on decarbonization, including Hood’s role. Richard Donnelly, who spent a decade working for a nonprofit utility dedicated to energy efficiency joined VGS as its Director of Energy Innovation.

“The creation of that job was a clear signal to me that they were investing in the right things,” Donnelly told me.

VGS rolled out its first electrification program in early 2022, offering customers the option to lease or buy heat pump water heaters. The company was in a fairly unique position to do this, as it already had a sales and leasing program for gas equipment and an in-house team trained to install heating equipment.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, VGS launched an electric space heating program, offering central heat pumps that utilize the same ductwork as a homeowner’s existing furnace. For now, the company is installing these as dual fuel systems, meaning recipients keep their gas furnaces as a back-up source of heat. While heat pumps designed for cold climates don’t require this, they do lose efficiency in the coldest temperatures. Customers can decide when they want the system to switch over to gas, and the company developed a calculator that shows them how much carbon they can save, and what the anticipated costs will be, depending on where they set the switchover point.

The space heating systems are only available to a portion of the company’s customers — about 40% — because most have boilers and radiators with no ductwork. Hood said they hope to offer electric options for those homes in the future.

Dylan Giambatista, director of public affairs for VGS, told me the program is already taking off. Two weeks after it launched, they had well over 100 inquiries, he said. The water heaters, on the other hand, have had a pretty slow start. Only about 6% — or 48 total — of the water heaters the company has installed since January 2022 were heat pumps. “I don't think that folks are yet aware of that technology,” he said. “We expect heat pump water heater use will increase over time as incentives and consumer awareness increase,” he added in an email later.

Electrification isn’t the company’s only strategy to meet Vermont’s emissions goals.

It’s trying to reduce customers’ total energy usage through weatherization and other home efficiency improvements.

It’s also investing in alternative fuels, like renewable natural gas and hydrogen, to pump through its pipelines to any remaining gas customers. Nearly two-thirds of the gas that VGS sells is delivered to commercial and industrial customers, not all of whom may be able to fully electrify their operations. But local climate advocates have a lot of concerns about that aspect of the plan. Renewable natural gas, which typically comes from decomposing waste or dairy manure, is a lot more expensive than fossil gas. There’s also research indicating that it doesn’t necessarily have the climate benefits that proponents claim.

While Walsh, of the Public Interest Research Group, acknowledged how unique VGS’ electrification programs were, he said it's way too early to give the company the benefit of the doubt.

“There are some strategies that a gas utility could implement, that on the surface look good, but ultimately don't serve Vermont,” he said. “I think it's incumbent on all of us that are focused on cutting carbon pollution and cutting energy costs for Vermonters to watchdog their efforts very closely as they unfold.”

Others discount VGS’ heat pump programs because the company also continues to market and sell gas equipment and hook up new gas customers. Annette Smith, who runs a group called Vermonters for a Clean Environment sent me a screenshot of a VGS Facebook ad from May 8 offering people $500 to switch to natural gas.

Jim Dumont, a lawyer who has represented opponents of VGS in regulatory cases and lawsuits for years, said the first thing the company has to do to win public trust is come clean. “They have to tell the public that burning gas to heat your homes is helping push us over the climate cliff,” he told me. “They can sell heat pumps, but it's a competing message.”

VGS doesn’t deny that natural gas contributes to climate change. Lunderville, the CEO, told Vermont officials in a 2021 letter that the company recognizes “that its principal product today — fossil gas — has significant climate impacts.”

But the message stings with irony to Dumont, who has spent the last decade fighting a 41-mile gas pipeline the company built prior to its come-to-Jesus moment. Back in 2013, when VGS was first seeking approval for the pipeline from regulators, it argued that the project would cut energy costs and carbon emissions in the state. Most Vermonters did, and still do, heat their homes with fuel oil, propane, or wood — and gas can be a cleaner and often cheaper option. But opponents argued that cold climate heat pumps that were coming on to the market would be more affordable and effective.

Cold climate heat pumps were still pretty new at the time, and certainly weren’t being adopted in Vermont yet. The idea was sidelined, and while the scale of the pipeline was ultimately reduced, its cost ballooned from $86 million to $165 million. And now that it's completed, VGS is marketing heat pumps.

To Dumont, that’s not only ironic, it’s worrisome. The way gas utilities like VGS pay for big pipeline projects is to recover the costs over decades through customer bills. But if VGS helps people go electric, the residual costs of the pipeline are going to fall on fewer and fewer customers. As VGS leans into electrification, it could also be barreling toward a scenario referred to as the utility death spiral: the cost of gas will increase, driving more people to get off it.

“Is the public going to be asked to bail out the company, or will the company be responsible for its own bad judgment and will its sole shareholder have to swallow the loss?” Dumont asked. “If there are no consequences for making a bad investment, then effectively it's not a regulated utility, it's effectively a taxpayer-funded business.”

This is a problem that all gas utilities are facing or will likely face, whether or not they embrace a transition to electric buildings. Mike Henchen, a principle in the carbon-free buildings program at RMI, a national nonprofit, said this was “the elephant in the room” around the country.

“How to deal with all the customers hooked up to this fossil fuel system looms large on the horizon,” he said. “There's not going to be an easy way to tackle that.”

I reached out to Énergir, the Canadian company that owns VGS, to find out whether it had any concerns about VGS’ financial future. “Énergir has always believed in the complementarity of different energy solutions and in accelerating electrification where it makes sense,” Éric Lachance, president and CEO of Énergir said by email, adding that “Énergir strongly supports VGS’s approach.”

Though heat pumps aren’t as profitable as natural gas, the company does see opportunities for growth. It can sell and lease the water heaters to residents outside its existing customer base. It’s also exploring the potential to build and manage geothermal heating networks, where entire neighborhoods could be heated by underground pipes carrying nothing but water.

“The market opportunity is huge,” said Donnelly, the Director of Energy Innovation. For now, the company is primarily limited by staffing, and is being careful not to create more demand than it can fulfill. He estimated VGS was looking at “hundreds of installs over the next couple of years and growing that part of our business quite rapidly, hopefully, within the next five years.”

VGS also sees potential for these programs to become more profitable thanks to a law passed by the state legislature earlier this month called the Affordable Heat Act that directs the state’s utility regulators to design a clean heat standard. The company could eventually earn credits for its electrification programs and sell them to other fuel providers in the state that need to comply with the standard.

As policy and technology continue to evolve, it makes sense that VGS doesn’t know exactly what the future holds. But faced with similar uncertainty, most gas utilities have responded by putting their heads in the sand or fighting tooth and nail against change.

What makes VGS remarkable is that it’s at least trying to find its place in a post-gas world.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article understated the length of a VGS pipeline. It is 41 miles, not 27 miles. The article has been corrected. We regret the error.

Yellow

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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