June 23, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

Like many buildings in this part of rural northern Michigan, the Tsuber Auto garage in the Village of Mesick is heated with propane, delivered once or twice a month by truck to the tank outside.

On a recent morning, owner Vyacheslav Tsuber sat behind the counter of a small, brightly lit lobby with his son — one of eight children. As Tsuber walked to the cave shop in the back, the smell of drip coffee mixed with rubber and grease.

According to him, it costs an average of $3,000 to $5,000 a year to heat the store. But that could soon change. DTE Gas Companya subsidiary of Michigan’s largest utility company, is expanding its natural gas network to the area, giving more than 1,000 homes and businesses the choice to switch to natural gas.

Natural gas is more climate-friendly than the propane and wood used in much of the region, according to DTE. The switch can also reduce heating bills.

“If the cost of natural gas is going to be almost half of what propane costs, for a lot of people, it’s an easy decision,” Tsuber said.

The choice many see is between propane and natural gas, as that is how DTE presented the project. Left out of that equation, climate advocates say, is a third option: electrification. Instead of locking up fossil fuels for decades to come – and reducing the incentive for people to electrify their homes – why not make it easier to switch to electric heating instead?

A white man with a salt and pepper beard stands in his auto shop next to a tall red chest of drawers containing tools.
Vyacheslav Tsuber owns the Tsuber Auto garage in Mesick, Michigan. He’s thinking about heating his garage with natural gas to save money, but also said he still has homework to do to make a good environmental decision. Izzy Ross / Grist

Supporters of natural gas see it as a bridge fuel, something consumers can use on their way to a sustainable future.

But critics say we don’t have that kind of time.

As Sam Stolper, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Sustainability puts it: “We have really ambitious [climate] goals with good reason. These are needs, not just goals, and we’re not going to meet them if we keep making decisions to switch to natural gas … instead of going straight to electrification.”

For him, the solution is clear. “It’s up to governments to make it so that households can choose that option,” he said.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel that consists mostly of methanean extremely powerful greenhouse gas that is much more efficient trap heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

There have been major efforts to encourage more home electrification. The federal Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits and rebates for technology such as heat pumps.

Still, getting off natural gas can be long, expensive and complicated Grist’s own reporters experiencedrequiring a deep dive into federal tax incentives and equipment upgrades.

The way houses are heated in the United States varies by region. In Michigan, natural gas is the primary heat source for more than three quarters of households and the leading source of electricity. It also has the most natural gas storage of any state. This makes natural gas a particularly attractive option for utilities, since they can buy it elsewhere during the summer, store it, and sell it for less in the winter. To make electricity more affordable, utilities’ rates will have to change significantly, said Parth Vaishnav, an assistant professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan.

A large tubular tank with propane painted on it in large letters.
A propane tank in Mesick, Michigan, where residents now have the option to move from propane to natural gas to heat their homes and businesses.
Izzy Ross / Grist

“Compared to natural gas, electricity is very expensive in Michigan — more expensive than it is in many other states,” he said. “If you go from natural gas to a heat pump, it will increase almost everyone’s bills by quite a lot, and the problem will be worse for people on low incomes than for people on high incomes.”

Financial considerations and logistical work can make the prospect of adopting cleaner heating daunting. For some, this is not an option at all.

“Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of worrying about a lot of environmental concerns,” said Conor Harrison, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina.

“Sometimes we are too quick to think about individual choices,” he said. “To change a heating system in a house like this is a big, big project. And it’s one that people usually don’t do until they have to.”

Then there are factors such as the strength of the power grid and the resilience of its infrastructure, experts say can complicate electrification.

“Of course you have freedom to choose how you heat your home, but honestly, only up to a point,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School. “If the electrical grid can no longer send power to your home, then you’re at a loss when it comes to installing a heat pump.”

Local initiatives have shown the key to encourage communities to adopt renewable energy in some cases. In others, municipal governments have moved to ban natural gas altogether.

But sometimes it’s not just about choosing the cleanest option. Places like Mesick and Buckley have worked for years to make natural gas a reality, with an eye toward economic benefits for the community.

“Propane was good, but natural gas is so much cheaper. That’s why it’s really leading the way,” Buckley Mayor Takis Pifer said.

Pifer, who previously worked as an analyst for DTE, acknowledged that other energy systems could work — he had a heat pump installed in his home — but said it makes sense to give consumers more choices.

There is also hope that the addition of natural gas will boost businesses in the area.

“It’s exciting. It’s a good thing for the town,” said Debbie Stanton, who has worked as Mesick’s town clerk for more than two decades.

Stanton is not against renewable energy; she got a grant to install a heat pump for the town office. But she said natural gas will create additional options for people who live there; in the past, businesses looking to set up shop in Mesick chose to go to locations that had a gas hookup. And with rising prices, saving on heating bills can help residents.

“I’ve raised three kids, and I currently spend more on groceries for the two of us than I did when I had my three kids at home,” she said. “You listen to people who have families, they spend $500 a week on groceries. So there’s not a lot of money left for other things, and maybe it’s not their priority at this time to be absolutely green.”

Oil and gas companies have long promoted natural gas as a clean energy source, despite knowing that it is a major contributor to climate change.

Despite Michigan’s goal of economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050 and calls for reducing dependence on fossil fuels, it by no means avoided natural gas.

Last year, the state awarded $50 million in grants for “low-carbon energy infrastructure” — much of which went to the expansion of biogas and natural gas. As Planet Detroit reported at the time, utility and gas industry lobbyists donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to lawmakers who wrote and sponsored the accounts behind the funding.

DTE received $7.28 million as part of that, making the approx $17 million gas main expansion project possibly, said Scotty Kehoe, the utility’s director of gas operations for Greater Michigan.

“Natural gas is one of those ways we reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “While natural gas may not be a renewable energy source, it is a very clean energy source.”

Despite utilities continuing to move forward with natural gas, the energy landscape is changing.

After a big methane leak at a Pennsylvania storage reservoir in 2022, the federal government began rolling out new rules for gas storage facilities, along with plans to fine companies for leaking methane.

More homeowners are heat pumps for sale than gas boilers. Federal incentives for heat pumps and energy efficiency measures can help reduce the demand for natural gas heating.

Some places, like a remote community in Washington Statecreated a cooperative financing model to finance heat pump installations.

And Michigan is harness federal incentives to begin offering home energy rebates for efficiency upgrades and electrification this fall — right around the time DTE plans to complete its natural gas project.

Back at the car shop in Mesick, mechanic Vyacheslav Tsuber considers it all. Some of its heating equipment will need to be replaced in the next few years, and natural gas will be convenient. Still, he said, he has more homework to do.

“We are very conscious of making sure that our decisions [are] environmentally friendly,” he said, “Or [are] at least better than what we currently use.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *