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California declares natural gas “firm zero-carbon” energy source

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith November 29th, 2021
4 min read
For business

Natural gas as a transitional energy source

Natural gas power plants meet the first condition of Newsom’s test. They can produce “high availability” energy over a “multiday” period during droughts or storms. This output contrasts with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Compensating for the variable supply from renewables requires the deployment of battery storage and energy efficiency programs.

The second condition is more controversial. Natural gas companies and their advocates often describe the fuel as a “transitional” resource to a clean energy economy. They note that burning natural gas produces lower levels of carbon emissions than coal.

Global oil major Shell, for example, considers natural gas a resource that’s suitable for “providing more and cleaner energy.” The company said, “Providing more energy to people while reducing its impact on the planet is one of the 21st century’s greatest challenges. Natural gas can help to meet that challenge by reducing emissions and improving air quality when it replaces coal and diesel.”

Critics argue that natural gas releases large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide into the air. Using natural gas contradicts the push to reach a carbon-free electricity grid. California’s current target is to have a carbon-free electricity grid by 2045.

Green America is a consumer education group focused on environmental protection and social change. It argues against considering natural gas a zero-carbon energy source. The group also rejects describing the fossil fuel as a “transitional fuel.” Investing in transitional fuels is a “dead end,” they write. “The money spent on natural gas power facilities and infrastructure takes decades to recuperate. Companies would need to use these facilities for their full lifetime, delaying the switch to renewables for far too long.

How does California plan to use natural gas?

Some clean energy initiatives in California suggest that natural gas emissions can be offset by carbon capture technology. This process involves capturing greenhouse gases and storing them underground.

Southern California Gas is the nation’s largest gas utility. It has its own plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. The utility believes that its infrastructure can adapt to burn clean alternatives. The two most promising fuel options are green hydrogen and renewable natural gas. Green hydrogen is made by using renewable energy sources, like solar power, to split water. The hydrogen is stored for burning when solar power isn’t immediately available.

“The infrastructure that we have in place will be an essential tool to ensure that energy stays not only clean, but safe, reliable, and resilient,” stated Southern California Gas chief executive Scott Drury earlier this year.

What will this mean for me?

The decision on how to use natural gas in the years to come will have a big impact on California energy customers. But opinions are divided on what this impact will be on ratepayers like you.

Natural gas advocates claim the fuel can secure affordable and reliable power during the energy transition. Supporters of renewable energy counter that retaining natural gas infrastructure will prove costly for consumers. They believe investing more in solar, wind, and storage offers the best route.

We’ll have to wait to see who is proven correct over the years to come.

Jordan Smith is a writer and researcher with expertise in renewable energy and deregulated energy markets. Jordan has written extensively on the deregulated energy market in Texas and the challenges confronted in the clean energy transition, and conducted research projects within the energy industry. Further articles by Jordan can be found at


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