Local View: Duluth can curb our heating bills by abandoning methane
From the column: "Neither our climate nor our pocketbooks can tolerate methane any longer."
Why is my natural gas bill going up?
Recently, the Energy Information Agency warned Americans that their home heating bill might be 30% to 50% higher this winter than in recent years. The reason has elements of supply and demand, hucksterism, geology, greed, fear, and geopolitical intrigue. All of it will play out in your heating bills this winter.
Over the last 10 years, investment firms have poured hundreds of billions of dollars, which no doubt included some of your retirement funds, into the fracked-gas bonanza. Production of natural gas or methane soared and the price sank. Hundreds of methane-burning power plants were built, and still the supply exceeded demand. To keep the good times going, oil and gas companies painted rosy pictures for investors who obligingly poured still more money into gas fields, only to lose that money as well. By the end of the decade, investors threw in the towel and refused to finance more drilling.
So great was the supply of methane, however, that the late Bob Murray of Murray Coal specifically demanded that the administration of President Donald Trump permit large liquified natural gas (LNG) plants along the Gulf Coast to siphon off the excess methane from the American market and thus increase coal profits. Six LNG plants have been built, and more are on the way. The existing plants now export 10% of the nation’s methane. Coal prices are rebounding as utilities burn more coal to offset methane price hikes and the nation’s manufacturing sector is appealing to the administration of President Joe Biden to stop permitting more LNG plants.
There is a strong demand for LNG for a variety of reasons. The economy has rebounded, and Russian President Vladimir Putin may be deliberately manipulating the supply of methane to Europeans, who appear to have foolishly hoped he would never use fuel supplies as a geopolitical weapon against them, as he has done for years to Ukraine.
Making matters worse, the best acreage in America for gas exploration, so-called Tier 1 acreage, is already largely used up. So, the easiest gas is gone, right when the investors are demanding their cash back, making new projects hard to get started. Dramatically increasing supply therefore seems unlikely. LNG plants are also unlikely to go away as billions have been invested in them. So, demand on American methane supplies will remain high.
How do we begin to control our heating bills?
Well, building more methane-burning power plants like the Nemadji Trail Energy Center seems profoundly unwise in the environment described above.
We should also be looking carefully at the city of Duluth’s climate plan, which is due by the end of the year, as we have multiple ways to avoid using methane and rely instead on local resources for heat.
For instance, the city already has a methane-powered downtown heat district and billions of BTUs per day available at the WLSSD sewer plant only several miles away. Heat pumps can easily raise the temperature as needed. This could be done inexpensively and in a single construction season. For that matter, the district heating system could be expanded throughout much of the city.
Or, what if homes relied on cold climate air source heat pumps with hydrogen-fueled fuel cells for backup? Fuel cells produce both heat and electricity with no pollution.
What if we converted the Superfund U.S. Steel site west of Morgan Park into a solar farm that produced green hydrogen for winter use?
There are many options. The point is that neither our climate nor our pocketbooks can tolerate methane any longer. It’s time for the Duluth City Council to lead away from methane.
Dr. Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is group leader for the Duluth Citizens' Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org). He also is a member of the Duluth Climate and Environment Network.