Climate resiliency was one of the dominating topics in Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s elections. Both localities also set emissions goals to become carbon neutral by 2050. So, where does the city-operated gas utility — which services both — fit in, and how does it currently operate?
- The city and county have goals of carbon neutrality by 2050
- The city owns a natural gas utility that services the city and parts of Albemarle County
- Natural gas, while argued to be cleaner than coal or oil-produced energy, is considered a fossil fuel
“As a municipally-owned natural gas utility, it is our responsibility to work in the best interest of our customers, unlike Investor-owned utilities that must satisfy the shareholder’s interests,” said Lauren Hildebrand, director of Charlottesville’s utilities.
Hildebrand said the city purchases its gas through BP, which is sourced throughout the country. The natural gas then is transported through pipelines to the city and flows to more than 20,000 customers in the city and Albemarle’s urban ring. The city’s gas utility presently services 81% of residential homes in the city limits.
As the city and county have set emissions goals, the use of natural gas factors into that. According to Caetano de Campos Lopes, director of climate policy at Charlottesville Climate Collaborative (C3), stationary energy — which consists mainly of building energy use — accounts for 65.4% of Charlottesville’s emissions, with about 26.8% of that stemming from natural gas.
“If the city wants to hit 100% neutrality by 2050 eventually, you have two options,” de Campos Lopes said. “Either you electrify everything and expect the electricity grid to become carbon-neutral, or you’re going to have to consider the use of renewable forms of natural gas and do some initial carbon capture or sequestration to compensate for potential residual emissions.”
In the summer of 2019, Charlottesville city council voted to divest from holdings in companies that produce fossil fuels and weapons, but has not fully divested from fossil fuels. City councilor Michael Payne says divesting from the general fund is something to explore, but that it could take some time to “untangle.”
“Obviously the city alone is not going to solve the climate crisis,” Payne said. “But across the world, every small contribution helps.”
Recent decades have shown localities and states embracing renewable resources or arguably cleaner fossil fuels, as opposed to coal-generated power, to be more climate resilient and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Virginia alone, despite a rise in solar and wind energy, there are still limitations on the amounts of energy produced. Meanwhile, utility companies like Dominion Energy remain primary sources and have invested in renewable energy while converting some of their coal facilities to natural gas.
According to Dominion, about 40% of the power produced by its customers comes from non-renewables like natural gas, coal and oil, with 15 power stations fueled by natural gas.
“The future of the natural gas industry is hard to predict, even for professionals who work in the industry every day,” Hildebrand said. “However, the natural gas industry is looking to provide carbon neutral solutions to gas utilities by increasing the production of renewable natural gas and incorporating several different carbon offset programs into their business models.”
Carbon offset programs allow entities like Charlottesville Gas to measure its carbon footprint and then invest in environmental projects that can capture the equivalent amount of emissions. Hildebrand said projects can range from reforestation to the capture of methane from landfills.
Hildebrand said that the utility is doing some initial evaluation to see what it may want to pursue.
In the meantime, it has engaged in an energy efficiency program that can help lower gas power usage.
In July, Charlottesville Gas developed the Charlottesville Gas Energy Efficiency Program and has worked with Local Energy Alliance Program to create better energy efficiency in homes.
“This program was developed to provide free weatherization for homes and funds the replacement of inefficient natural gas appliance to income qualified households,” Hildebrand said. “In addition to this program, customers can take advantage of well-established rebate programs.”
So far, LEAP has worked on a dozen households — usually resulting in attic insulation or air sealing, and in some cases replacement of gas furnaces or water heaters.
Executive director of LEAP, Chris Meyer, noted where energy efficiency can especially benefit lower income households.
“We’ve served a number of low-income households already to implement a number of different energy saving measures and reduced power bills,” Meyer said in an email. “One nice part of it is that Cville Gas refers people to us who make requests for payment relief, so in the future ideally they won’t have to request payment help after we’ve been able to reduce their consumption.”