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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jason Thackston: Natural gas is still an important part of our region’s energy portfolio

By Jason Thackston Avista

As a Spokane-based energy provider for over 130 years, Avista is about more than just electricity and natural gas. Founded on the banks of the Spokane River, we care deeply about the natural resources that allow us to serve our customers and that enrich all of our lives. We also care about the health and vibrancy of our communities and all who reside here.

We appreciate and respect the interest, commitment and consideration of the citizens who have invested their time and energy into the development of the draft Sustainability Action Plan sponsored by the City Council. Following the opinion piece recently published about the plan, we’d like to provide some additional information and context about how we all might achieve a lower-carbon future.

Avista has been engaged with the Council’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee that drafted the plan since the start, serving in an advisory and informational role to help shape a plan that aligns with and builds on existing clean energy goals and that acknowledges and represents the needs and interests of the entire community. We have provided constructive input, seeking to clarify the role and importance of natural gas in meeting clean energy goals and in providing affordable and reliable energy for Spokane residents.

Customers in the Inland Northwest benefit from affordable energy. For Avista’s customers, electricity comes from a generating portfolio that is nearly 60% renewable already. And, when the sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t blowing or the river flows are low, we count on natural gas to generate electricity and ensure the lights stay on. This diverse mix of generation is part of what contributes to affordable electricity rates, and it’s critical for reliability.

Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels. It plays a key role in reducing carbon emissions, particularly when used directly in homes for cooking and heating rather than when used to generate electricity to meet the same need. For decades, we have worked with our customers to use natural gas efficiently. A direct ban on natural gas in new construction is not a more efficient or affordable solution, particularly with the cold temperatures we experience in winter. A recent University of California, Davis study confirms that in Washington, electrification of natural gas heating can actually increase carbon emissions. When natural gas heating equipment is replaced with electric equipment such as heat pumps, the electric equipment’s efficiency is diminished under colder temperatures. To meet this demand without natural gas, the electricity would have to be purchased, likely at a higher cost. The study shows that electrification is less efficient and increases carbon by over 30% using a standard heat pump.

As we’ve seen recently, the natural gas distribution system supports reliability during electric outages – a natural gas fireplace provides heat when the power is out, which can be critically important for sustained outages in cold weather. If natural gas is not available to customers during sustained electrical outages, they may resort to burning wood, operating gasoline generators or using propane.

Beyond environmental and reliability considerations, there are steep cost implications when eliminating the direct use of natural gas that will impact business and residential customers. It costs even more to replace natural gas heating systems and appliances with electric ones in existing homes and businesses.

For Avista customers, electricity and natural gas work in a complementary way, providing the right fuel for the right purpose and a system that optimizes overall energy reliability and resiliency. We recognize that reducing carbon emissions has value, and we believe that a measured approach balancing the broad impacts for a wide range of stakeholders is the appropriate path forward.

Just last month, we announced our aspirational goals to reduce natural gas emissions 30% by 2030 and to be carbon neutral in our natural gas operations by 2045. In 2019, we defined clean electricity goals to serve customers with 100% clean electricity by 2045 and to have a carbon-neutral supply of electricity by the end of 2027. We’re committed to continuing our work together to achieve these goals, and we support efforts to reduce emissions, advance clean energy and foster more sustainable communities in ways that balance environmental responsibility, affordability and reliability.

Jason Thackston is senior vice president of energy resources at Avista.

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