Aquidneck Island Confronts Plan to Add Natural Gas
November 22, 2020
The future of natural gas expansion on Aquidneck Island is sparking considerable debate ahead of a deadline to comment on a plan by National Grid.
The multinational utility serves 14,300 residential and business gas customers on the three island communities — Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. The state’s primary utility also projects less than 1 percent annual growth in customers in the years ahead. Aquidneck Island’s distribution system is already strained, according to National Grid, and more natural gas infrastructure is needed to meet demand and avoid disruptions like the gas outage in January 2019.
In a series of online meetings with city and town councils, businesses, and environmental groups, National Grid is presenting four options to address the island’s natural gas use and heating infrastructure. Three of the options suggest building new gas facilities and pipelines on Aquidneck Island and even offshore. A fourth, called a non-infrastructure option, curbs natural gas use through energy efficiency, reducing consumption, and switching to electric-powered equipment such as heat pumps.
A few months after the week-long gas outage in 2019, National Grid received permission from the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to operate a temporary liquefied natural gas storage and vaporization facility on Old Mill Lane in Portsmouth. The London-based corporation prefers not to make the facility permanent. In pubic informational meetings, National Grid has shown an inclination to build a new 6-inch-wide pipeline that runs parallel to the existing gas main that serves Aquidneck Island. The gas line reaches shore near Old Mill Lane via a pipeline that runs underneath the Sakonnet River from Little Compton.
Advocates for addressing the climate crisis and the fiscal and racial-justice impacts of fossil fuels note that building natural gas infrastructure will only make it more difficult and expensive to switch to non-fossil-fuel heating options.
On a Nov. 18 video call led by the community group Aquidneck Island Climate Caucus, Hank Webster, director of the Acadia Center, critiqued National Grid’s presentations. He noted the utility’s financial incentive to switch heating oil consumers to natural gas. New gas customers require a National Grid account that charges monthly service fees, he said, while adopting a new electric heating system only requires an existing electricity account.
“I think it’s an important cost they don’t discuss,” Webster said.
New gas connections also tear up roads and lawns and cost about $10,000.
“This increased utility revenue will be incurred at the expense of customers,” Webster said. “All gas customers pay for infrastructure that could have been avoided.”
Webster noted that natural-gas prices are projected to be much higher in the years ahead.
“That’s going to be born by the consumer,” he said. “That’s not going to get eaten by the utility. They are going to pass that cost on.”
Regarding the short-term problem of a limited gas supply during cold snaps, Webster noted the problem could be erased in three to four years by weatherizing 4,800 homes or converting 1,900 homes to air-source heat pumps. The least-expensive solution is converting gas water heaters to air-pump water heaters in 3,000 homes.
Air-source heat pumps are effective in the cold, Webster said, as states like Vermont and Maine have installed them widely through marketing and financial incentives. Maine expects to install an additional 100,000 in five years. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have installed hundreds of thousands of heat pumps.
“We can scale up a program to meet those kinds of challenges,” Webster said.
He refuted the perception that natural-gas expansion is necessary to sustain economic growth. Moratoriums on natural gas hookups coupled with new electric-heated homes and commercial buildings are happening sporadically across the country with no signs of economic slowdown.
National Grid doesn’t support a hookup moratorium.
“We want to continue to provide safe, reliable energy service for the island. Whether it’s natural gas or electricity, we’re both sides of it. So if you put a moratorium on gas, the load shifts over to electricity,” Brian Schuster, director of community relations for National Grid in Rhode Island, said during a recent online meeting with the Newport City Council and the public.
Schuster said National Grid will adhere to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. He noted that there is no favoritism for any one of the four options for heating Aquidneck Island.
“But at the end of the day, affordability is going to be a key aspect here,” he said.
Public comments, so far, elicited strong opinions for three of the options, he said. National Grid’s preferred choice may favor the option that has the least public resistance or includes a combination of options.
Schuster admitted that the outage in January 2019 wasn’t caused by a problem with Aquidneck Island’s gas network.
“It was an upstream interruption of supply,” he said. “It wasn’t growth and [that] we didn’t have enough supply.”
That outage isn’t the impetus for National Grid’s call to change the island’s heating system, but rather a policy that has been enacted by the owner of the gas pipeline. Since the outage, Calgary-based Enbridge imposed limits on the amount of natural gas National Grid can draw from “take stations” along the Algonquin pipeline that serves southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Enbridge said it’s enacting the new policy because of increased demand for natural gas and the lack of pipelines and other facilities to sustain the demand.
Without Old Mill Lane, Schuster said there is a real risk of another outage because of a low-pressure gas line in Newport.
“The island, especially Newport, is at the end of the gas pipe,” he said. “The lowest pressures are going to be experienced first in Newport based on the setup of the pipeline system. Frankly, Newport is at the highest risk on our pipeline within our state. … Hence we want another solution for additional capacity.”
That pressure problem, however, will be addressed when Nation Grid replaces Newport’s low-pressure systems with higher-pressure systems as part of regular upgrades. Those upgrades, though, won’t impact the the island’s threat of a constrained supply of natural gas imposed by Enbridge.
Webster noted the health risks, especially for children, posed by household natural gas appliances that release hazardous fumes. He said gas stoves are especially problematic in low-income housing where living spaces are typically smaller.
“So, it’s another aspect of making good choices for your community,” he said.
New and old gas infrastructure also pose safety risks, as shown by the Merrimack Valley explosions in 2018 and others around the country that resulted in fatalities. The 2019 Aquidneck Island outage, Webster noted, was caused by a faulty valve, overconsumption by customers, and human error. Operations that were overseen by National Grid and Enbridge.
“Here you have National Grid, who was the operator of some of these systems and Enbridge, who was the operator of another, basically proposing that you might give them responsibility over more infrastructure,” Webster said.
It’s the fuel that causes the safety risks not the infrastructure, he said.
“I respectfully ask that you think of the ramifications of bringing more gas on, in addition to the climate risk, the consumer risk, and all of those other things,” Webster said.
With electric heat, consumers can control how they obtain and even store their energy, especially if they install solar panels and battery storage systems.
“Those are all things you can do,” Webster said. “You are never going to produce your own gas.”
State Reps. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, and Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, started the Aquidneck Island Climate Caucus in September 2019 to promote discussions about the climate crisis.
“We believe the whole island needs to fight climate change together. We feel that strongly,” Carson said.
She stressed that the natural gas infrastructure changes being proposed by National Grid wouldn’t have prevented the outage in 2019.
“Bringing more pipelines down here will not avert that problem,” Carson said. “The bottom line right now on climate is we need money. We know what to do. We know what we need to do on the waterfront. We know what we need to do to buildings. So know it’s a matter of talking about how we are going to pay for it. And it comes down to property owners and municipalities who are at the front line of the expenses related to sea-level rise and climate change. … It’s going to take a lot longer than two years. But now is the time to start talking about it.”
Cortvriend said supporters of taking on climate change should support legislation that sets mandatory emissions restrictions.
National Grid is asking the three municipalities to endorse one of the options by mid-December. It will then propose an option or combination of options to the PUC for approval by the end of December.
Public comments can be sent to National Grid by Dec. 1.
The Newport City Council is expected to take public comment and begin drafting a letter to National Grid at its meeting scheduled for Dec. 9.