Charlottesville Gas Study Not Pointing To Elimination. Yet.

By Steve Haner

Charlottesville is one of three Virginia municipal governments that still owns and operates a natural gas distribution utility. With the current political hostility to all forms of hydrocarbon energy, the future of that utility is under debate and its customers will soon have a chance to speak up.

The listening sessions follow other stakeholder sessions and a presentation earlier this year to Charlottesville City Council. It included some recommendations about the future of the utility, but notably not any path toward eliminating it. Not yet anyway.

There will be two public comment sessions online, July 9 and 16, and one in-person hearing on August 22. The portal to sign up is here.

The Charlottesville municipal gas utility serves more than 21,500 customers, almost half of them not in the city. It reaches well into Albemarle County, especially along U.S. 250 and U.S. 29. There are 16 industrial users and for some of them gas might be an essential energy source.

More than a year ago, Charlottesville hired an outside consultant, Black and Veatch, to do what it has termed a decarbonization study. In 2019, the city council adopted a formal goal of reducing the city’s own carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 (just five years away now) and achieving “carbon neutrality” by 2050. Carbon neutrality, just as vague a goal as “net zero,” does not mean zero emissions.

Richmond City Council has also gone on record as worried about the climate impact of its own municipal gas utility, with more than 100,000 customers in the city and three surrounding counties. A similar organized decarbonization effort was proposed for Richmond, but if it is underway it is below the radar screen so far. Charlottesville’s transparency is a pleasant contrast.

The final report from Charlottesville’s outside consultant is not expected until later in 2024, according to that presentation to the city council. One of the questions pending is whether and how the city might close down the utility, but a slide in this preliminary report points to hurdles. Slide 24 of the presentation mentioned a required supermajority vote of city council followed by a referendum and limits in state law. Changing either the city charter or that state law would depend on the legislature.

Customer preference is another hurdle. Charlottesville undertook a survey of 303 city and county residents (pages 17-23) and found 46% of them were gas customers. Of those active customers, 94% said “global climate change” is a very serious or somewhat serious problem, but 96% said having gas available was important to them, 51% saying it was extremely important. The headline on the slide calls that “conflicting views.”

Among the gas customers, 51% indicated they were unlikely to voluntarily abandon gas appliances and only 34% were likely or somewhat likely to.  Among all respondents, including non-gas customers, that fuel source was considered more energy efficient, more cost efficient and more reliable their either electric service or propane. (A note to the political nerds: the sample was only 5% Republican, so imagine the numbers in other parts of Virginia.)

The city council was told that the number of new gas connections annually has been declining. Removing any incentives traditionally offered to entice new homes or commercial buildings to use gas, or to switch from electricity to gas, is one tactic Charlottesville and others are considering. One of the recommendations in the interim presentation, not fleshed out in detail, is a fee structure that discourages new connections.

A perfectly valid tactic no one should object to is more aggressively finding, fixing or preventing leaks. The atmospheric impact of leaked methane is different (some argue it is worse) than the byproducts of burning methane in a furnace or stove. Even if you aren’t worried about that, the leaked gas is waste and adds to customer cost. The presentation claims Charlottesville’s record with leaks is hugely better than Richmond’s.

In comparison to other municipal utilities examined, Charlottesville’s service is very compact, with 60 customers per mile of gas mains, double the average. So is Richmond’s, with more than 50 customers per mile of mainline.

Charlottesville is more aggressive than many local utilities with incentive programs to encourage more efficient appliances or to lower gas usage in other ways. This report stated Richmond makes no such effort to reduce demand for its gas.

Charlottesville is engaging in offset programs and offset purchases which it claims counteract 25% of the CO2 and methane emissions caused by the gas utility and its customers. What it spends on those overall is not mentioned, except for its program to expand the planting of trees. Slide 29 reports 450 trees planted at $22,500 in cost, resulting in 1.3 million pounds (less than 1,000 tons) of CO2 “sequestered.”

Who can object to planting more trees? If that keeps the activists calm and quiet while the rest of us can keep our gas furnaces and stoves, that is a small price to pay. Let’s all hope that works. But if I cared about maintaining this particular municipal service, I’d get on one of these public hearings. The people who want to kill it will all be there.  

 

 


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57 responses to “Charlottesville Gas Study Not Pointing To Elimination. Yet.”

  1. DJRippert Avatar
    DJRippert

    What do the wizards in Charlottesville and Richmond expect homeowners (who use gas) to do if they close down the two gas companies?

  2. Lefty665 Avatar
    Lefty665

    "that fuel source (gas) was considered more energy efficient, more cost efficient and more reliable their either electric service or <i>propane</i>."

    Propane is usually compressed to a liquid, but I don't believe I've ever before seen it separated from gas as a fuel source. Curious.

    If planting a tree for each gas appliance we use is an offset, lets go for it. What an elegant solution. That plus replacing coal with solar, wind and nuclear as energy sources, presuming we find a way to store energy from intermittent sources, would be a big step towards carbon neutrality.

    1. Randy Huffman Avatar
      Randy Huffman

      I live in Albemarle County and fairly close to the city limits. My neighborhood lot size and topography is such that the gas line does not come up to us. The solution? Propane.

      We have propane heat and cooking, we have a propane tank, don’t remember exact size but I would guess 500 gallons, and it’s filled by a local vendor, not the city. While our developer was installing propane heat (with an AC unit is summer) for first floor and a heat pump system in the second floor, I went with dual fuel where it’s heat pump converting to propane when temperatures drop below about 35. I also installed a heat pump water heater, not propane as designed by the builder.

      I know a lot of people in the city and surrounding county who will go ballistic if the try and shut down the gas system, but it would be a boon for propane systems.

      As an aside, I also have a wood stove for winter, and did put in solar panels, so my actual utility costs are pretty modest. I only have to fill the tank once a year.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        propane is better than butane, which in turn, is better than methane. The first two will settle to the ground, the last rise. All 3 breakdown to CO2. Better in the dirt than the air.

        For use on a boat, it’s either blow the bottom out, or the doghouse up.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Gas is good. Having said that, looks like the donkeys are in trouble.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Well, I have 3 months to position for the fall of the world’s economy. Don’t waste time.

            Joe had a horrible night. Trump is a horrible person. What’s changed?

            The good news for the Democrats is that Joe has soul searching to do. The bad news for Republicans is that Trump is incapable of doing that.

          2. DJRippert Avatar
            DJRippert

            We need Jim Bacon to declare his candidacy for president. He might not be great but he's better than either of the two stooges I saw last night.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I’d rather the Republicans stick with Trump. Easier to defend against selfish malice than feigned righteousness.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            ouch!

          5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
            James Wyatt Whitehead

            Stock up on Twinkies. They last longer than the 45 day sell by date.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Clearly Biden's days are numbered as POTUS but also clear is Trump's intentions which were on full display and I remain agog that a substantial number of fellow citizens do actually believe his lies, grievances and dark plans with regard to Constitution and Democratic Governance.

            I have no such concerns for whoever the Dems support after Biden, the country will be in good hands and remain the greatest Democracy in the world and the differences between liberal governance and conservative governance will continue with give and take compromises rather than strongman autocracy.

          7. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Biden lost points, for sure. If it was the result of a transient illness remains to be seen, but Trump didn’t win points. The pool of undecided grew… not a good thing for either side.

            Burden is on Joe to make live appearances, take questions including some real fastballs, and demonstrate that last night was a fluke, or it’s time for “I come to you with a heavy heart…”

            The good news is that against Trump, July is an enormous amount of time.

          8. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Looked like just about every culture war lie and conspiracy theory was recited and claimed true! Just amazing!

      2. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        Yes, the point about switching to propane may well be true for people that can do that – but likely not people in apts, townhomes, etc and what not said is what places like Charlottesville, Richmond, etc do for new apts/townhomes in terms of not expanding service to them in the first place, perhaps akin to a county deciding not to expand water/sewer to places where they want to stay more rural and not develop more dense.

        I have a similar setup to yours sans the wood stove and solar (which does not "work" in deep woods. The dual fuel furnace is pretty efficient but not the most which are more expensive and more trouble prone I hear. We also have a propane fireplace and we basically primarily heat only the rooms we are occupying most of the time so maybe 1 1/2 times a year for fill.

        So, I'm not yet entirely sure how propane compares to natural gas with respect to pollution and/or release of greenhouse gases.

        I think at the point of use, it's pretty clean and environmentally friendly but I've also read that it is produced from natural gas and methane can be released if they don't capture it and it's considered a potent greenhouse gas. It might be like hydrogen which is produced from natural gas but in the process releases methane.

        Of course, if one doesn't believe that methane and related gases are a potent green-house gas, then their perspective about gas is more along the lines of it being wrongly limited.

        I think cities are free to get out of the gas business altogether, like some have gotten out of providing electricity and turned it over to utilities but discourage connections to new development.

        1. Randy Huffman Avatar
          Randy Huffman

          My two prior houses had heat pump only and utility rates skyrocketed in very cold temperatures because it then has to turn to resistance heat. I had it better as I put in a woodstove for my last one, but as you say many don’t have that option.

          Overall gas heat rules in northern climates, but dual fuel has a lot of benefits for those who need AC too (a lot of homes way up north don’t need AC)

          1. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            You mentioned that your dual-fuel system runs the propane furnace below 35F.

            I have a heat pump and my house is well insulated enough that the balance point is probably closer to 15F.

            I run it with the resistance heat turned off. The resistance heat will only come on during defrost.

          2. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            You mentioned that your dual-fuel system runs the propane furnace below 35F.

            I have a heat pump and my house is well insulated enough that the balance point is probably closer to 15F.

            I run it with the resistance heat turned off. The resistance heat will only come on during defrost.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Wow. So you must have pretty modest heating bills!

          4. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            They got even more modest when I added solar.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            how do your air conditioning bills compare?

          6. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Even lower.

            I have the AC set to drop the temp to 70F after midnight. (I like it cooler at night). Starting at 6AM, it’s set to 80F. Even these last few days it takes till almost 6PM to reach 80F in the house. It takes 12 hours for the indoor temp to increase 10F from 70F to 80F on a day with a 95F high.

          7. Randy Huffman Avatar
            Randy Huffman

            Sounds right, but the heat pump gets less efficient as temperature drops. I recall in my old house that the heat pump never seemed to turn off when it got below 20 at night.

          8. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Mine will still cycle at 17F outdoor with 68F indoor.

            One year it got to 5F outside. I still didn’t enable the aux heat. So, the results of that experiment are: 5F outdoor, 60F indoor, heatpump running constantly.

            That’s not bad at all. Single stage Trane, nothing special. Sized for cooling according to Manual J.

      3. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar
        f/k/a_tmtfairfax

        We have a similar system in Wake Forest – gas furnace & A/C for the first floor and a heat pump for the second floor, which we don't use regularly except for guests and my Bowflex. We also have a tankless water heater in our crawl space.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          We have a tankless powered by propane and I monitor the propane tank and it goes for weeks even months barely moving the needle on remaining propane in the tank. It's VERY efficient, way, way MORE efficient that a conventional electric (or even gas) water heater. The tankless are a prime example of a way better technology for conserving energy and dollars but the upfront cost is a strong deterrent for retrofit replacement and in my view, an excellent place to offer tax credits so more non-rich folks can take advantage and it benefits all of us.

          1. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            We had propane at the Wintergreen house for heat and hot water (tankless). Very efficient. My beef was the market for propane is hardly competitive, my builder locked me into a bad deal, but I started making noises about reform bills and got swamped. 🙂

          2. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            At one point the price for propane was so high that even if you had a 90% AFUE propane furnace, you would have been better off (cost wise) running electric space heaters at 12 cents/kwh.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Not competitive and not strictly regulated either but often they own the tank… and thus, you! I did not know one could have such success…at getting the price down! I get charged extra for locking in a guaranteed price for the season.

          4. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            I own my own tank. It hasn't been refilled in 7 years because it serves exactly two appliances: A gas stove and a gas cooktop.

          5. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            I own my own tank. It hasn't been refilled in 7 years because it serves exactly two appliances: A gas stove and a gas cooktop.

            EDIT: Brain fart. It serves a gas cooktop and a gas fireplace. The gas fireplace is rarely used though I will fire it up for heat in the event of a long term winter power outage, which has not yet happened. (go NOVEC!).

          6. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            I'm clueless on a comparison but wonder in terms of energy if using the gas is less consumptive than electric induction.

          7. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Depends on the cost of propane, which can vary much more than the cost of electricity.

      4. Lefty665 Avatar
        Lefty665

        We got a heat pump water heater about 5 years ago. Unfortunately it has not made an appreciable difference in our electric power usage. What we got from replacing an old refrigerator and switching to CFLs/LEDs for lights were both immediately apparent in our power usage. Same with heating cost after tripling the insulation in the attic.

        It was disappointing to figure out that because we don't use much hot water most of the energy we use goes for maintaining hot water, not creating it, and the old water heater was pretty well insulated. The old one was 15+ years old so it did not owe us anything. It was an interesting demonstration of the fact that not all "energy saving" exercises actually save much energy.

        Tankless looks like the way to heat water, except that the utilities really don't like the load fluctuations.

        1. Randy Huffman Avatar
          Randy Huffman

          I’m not sure either about savings, as I got it with a new house I could not do any comparison. Because it does pump out cold air, I keep it on heat pump mode in the summer so it does help in cooling the basement, it is very loud and requires a lot of air flow, so not suitable for an upstairs utility closet. In winter I use regular electric mode because I don’t want it pumping cold air when I’m heating the house. So I don’t think type of unit is for northern climates, but I’m glad I got it for our house.

          1. Lefty665 Avatar
            Lefty665

            Yeah, pretty much our experience. Ours is in the garage. Keeps it nice and cool in the summer.

            I'm glad we got it even though it cost about 3x what a straight up electric one would have cost. Efficiency will recoup some of that, but it seems unlikely all of it. I was surprised at how little impact it had on our electric bill. It was disappointing, made me wonder if the efficiency touting was mostly hype. If I have to do it again I will put in a tankless system that only uses power when hot water is being used.

          2. Randy Huffman Avatar
            Randy Huffman

            alot of people are making that choice.

    2. Marty Chapman Avatar
      Marty Chapman

      Do you have an opinion on pump storage plants? Dominion has a large facility in Bath Co and is at least considering one in Tazewell.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        The Bath facility has been a roaring success because it is tied to the nuclear plants, which are most efficient when run steadily so there is power to refill the reservoirs when customer demand drops. A similar facility tied to renewables, intermittent and weather dependent, might not been as successful. If the wind is down, the sun is down, and the reservoir hadn't been filled, no power from the dam.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          Such pump-storage facilities are very dependent on terrain. Can't build them anywhere. Only a limited number of sites in Va and even then even a good facility like Bath cannot generate power 24/7 and I tbought I read somewhere it actually uses more energy than it generates because it has to pump
          the water back up and the premise is that nukes run 24/7 even when the demand is actually less than what they generate.

          I'm also asking / polling here on BR as to whether one (no matter political or climate change leanings) if they would support Nuclear even if it would cost more than gas. Not necessarily a yes or no, because how much certainly would be a part.

        2. Marty Chapman Avatar
          Marty Chapman

          Stephen, you are correct pump storage is essentially a giant battery that stores energy until needed and if used must be recharged. The beauty being the power is available on short notice to cover spikes in demand or loss of primary sources, thus providing a large margin of resiliency.

  3. DJRippert Avatar
    DJRippert

    What do the wizards in Charlottesville and Richmond expect homeowners (who use gas) to do if they close down the two gas companies?

    1. An Appeal to Bigotry Avatar
      An Appeal to Bigotry

      there is this amazing alternative energy source called electricity

      1. DJRippert Avatar
        DJRippert

        So you have to replace all your gas appliances, heaters, etc with electrical versions? What percentage of households can afford to do that?

        1. Lefty665 Avatar
          Lefty665

          And, even if you are able to put appliances on credit card debt what are we going to use to generate the <u>reliable</u> electricity to run them? Are we only going to be able to cook, heat in the winter or cool in the summer when the sun is out and the wind is blowing?

        2. how_it_works Avatar
          how_it_works

          Don't forget that may (almost definitely) require an electric service upgrade, which will probably cost several thousand dollars. You can't put an electric water heater (30A) and an electric stove (50A) in a house with a 100 amp service. It cannot be done, that only leaves you 20A left over for everything else. A central air unit will use most if not all of the remaining 20A. We still haven't covered the heat. Yes you can use a heat pump, but you need some sort of aux heat for when the heat pump can't keep up or for when it's in defrost so add at least another 20A (realistically, more like 50A) for that.

          So add in the cost of upgrading the service to 200A or even 400A depending on the size of the house and how much it needs in the way of aux heat.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            I was under the impression (perhaps wrongly) that getting 200 or even 400 was not hard, just need to get the panel box… the actual amps are already there if you have 240 service.

            The thing about gas is not to stop it 100% right now – no more than it was to do that with leaded gas or Chlorofluorocarbons.

            it took some time and was more transitional that overnight "stop".

            Even now, today there are exemptions for both:

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4d7e4506eb8a00f798637eb649e06936b0ef68ba5e6f18070aa0014a00549862.png https://www.epa.gov/ozone-layer-protection/ban-nonessential-products-containing-ozone-depleting-substances

            We're moving away over time not banning overnight as posited by some folks.

            We're STILL burning COAL for electricity how long after we "banned" it?

          2. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            It depends on the size of the existing transformer and the service cable. But that's the electric company's problem.

            Electricians charge quite a bit to do a panel replacement. Even more with post-COVID pricing. Also the meterbase will likely need to be changed out, it's usually supplied by the electric company but installed by the electrician. Also the wires between the meterbase and panel need to be upgraded, and, if overhead service, between the weatherhead and the meterbase. Both are the responsibility of the property owner/electrician.

          3. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            It depends on the size of the existing transformer and the service cable. But that's the electric company's problem.

            Electricians charge quite a bit to do a panel replacement. Even more with post-COVID pricing. Also the meterbase will likely need to be changed out, it's usually supplied by the electric company but installed by the electrician. Also the wires between the meterbase and panel need to be upgraded, and, if overhead service, between the weatherhead and the meterbase. Both are the responsibility of the property owner/electrician.

          4. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            It depends on the size of the existing transformer and the service cable. But that's the electric company's problem.

            Electricians charge quite a bit to do a panel replacement. Even more with post-COVID pricing. Also the meterbase will likely need to be changed out, it's usually supplied by the electric company but installed by the electrician. Also the wires between the meterbase and panel need to be upgraded, and, if overhead service, between the weatherhead and the meterbase. Both are the responsibility of the property owner/electrician.

          5. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            It depends on the size of the existing transformer and the service cable. But that's the electric company's problem.

            Electricians charge quite a bit to do a panel replacement. Even more with post-COVID pricing. Also the meterbase will likely need to be changed out, it's usually supplied by the electric company but installed by the electrician. Also the wires between the meterbase and panel need to be upgraded, and, if overhead service, between the weatherhead and the meterbase. Both are the responsibility of the property owner/electrician.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            sounds like not simple nor cheap……….

          7. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            My brother paid about $3K for a 400-amp service upgrade. All they did was install a new meterbase and two new load centers (each 200 amps).

            That was necessary to supply power to a new garage.

          8. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            $1400 to run power 50ft to a shed. Cannot find someone to get power from an REC box
            for a light on the cul-de-sac, 400 ft from house. Says needs to run 400 foot of buried cable from the house to the cul-de-sac.. I think it’s like $10 a foot or some such and I don’t trust them for nothing to
            not cut phone/internet..

          9. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Rip-off pricing from the trades is par for the course around here. I think the HVAC people are now charging $600 to change a $20 capacitor.

            That's assuming that they're honest and don't tell the customer they need a whole new unit.

          10. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            who said you need a college degree to make good bucks! 😉 Some of these “companies” are really sole
            proprietorships/LLP and the workers are independent contractors… not employees. An essential difference is that an employer (and employee) pay FICA taxes but an independent contractor pays both employer/employee FICA taxes (called self employment taxes). That means both the proprietorship and independent contractor/llp have to get their cut.

  4. An Appeal to Bigotry Avatar
    An Appeal to Bigotry

    offsets are bullshite
    greenwashing nonsense

  5. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    One of the interesting things about RVing is the number of folks who really have little idea of how vital and abundant grid electricity is and you find out just how long a 12volt battery can last in powering a small 12volt fridge

    Also, how powerful propane gas is. A 12 volt fridge might last 24 hours without recharge on a 12 volt. A 12 volt "absorption" fridge on propane can last for weeks but the industry is moving away from absorption fridges and to 12volt "compressor" fridges that will totally toast your 12 volt battery in the bat of an (overnight) eye. That's the number one issues that newbies run smack dab into.

    What does this have to do with Cville or Richmond gas and supposed "bans" that one could be convinced, will happen quickly on a date certain drop-dead date.

    I'm of the view that there is no way in heck that we can ban gas 100% "overnight" and such a specter is indeed alarming and simply not true and
    very much scare-mongering.

    This is going to happen over time in a much more gradual way that does not take away existing uses as much as it might affect new uses and in concert with other changes to reduce.

    We're still burning coal for instance to produce electricity, and the transition away from coal is not going to happen overnight – it will take decades.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e1f45be1401b3742c1ad3e61240a3fff891c8a4d237a7de289e19fb01ed51e43.png
    https://www.verdewatts.com/shift-to-renewable-power-accelerates/

    panic is unjustified.. promoting panic, why?

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