Joe Cabral, a sub-contractor for National Grid, uses a wrench to turn off the main natural gas line to a home, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Newport, R.I.
A subcontractor for National Grid turns off a Rhode Island home's main natural gas line in January 2019, after National Grid had suspended service to roughly 7,100 customers in Newport and other parts of Aquidneck Island. Credit: Steven Senne / AP Photo

Rhode Island utility regulators are beginning to consider what the state’s mandate to zero out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 means for its natural gas system. 

The state Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, has opened a docket to investigate the future of the gas distribution business, a response to the passage last year of the Act on Climate.

The investigation could bring about “wide-ranging and significantly impactful” changes, such as moratoriums on new hookups, incentives for renewable natural gas, and transitioning customers to alternative heating fuels like electricity, the commission said in its notice of the proceeding.

Hank Webster, Rhode Island director for the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization, said it’s crucial for the state to start this discussion now. 

“The gas distribution system is one of the major sources of greenhouse gasses,” he said. “Every time a new gas connection is made, adding to ratepayer costs, it locks in long-term fossil fuel use.”

Building emissions, including those that result from the use of natural gas, account for about 35% of Rhode Island’s total emissions, according to the most recent state inventory. About half of the state’s households are heated with gas.

The PUC regulates the gas system, which is operated by Rhode Island Energy, formerly Narragansett Electric until its purchase this year by PPL Corp. And under the Act on Climate, all state agencies are required to consider climate impacts in the exercise of their powers. They are also authorized to adopt the regulations necessary to meet the greenhouse gas reduction mandate. 

The neighboring state of Massachusetts began a similar study into the future of gas in 2020. But that process has resulted in sharp criticism from climate advocates, who say it gave too much control to the gas utilities. Earlier this year, Attorney General Maura Healey — who is running for governor — filed a scathing set of comments on the proposals emerging, saying the result would be an energy system that “pumps more money into gas pipelines and props up utility shareholders.”

Massachusetts “almost wasted a year by putting it in the hands of the utilities to control things from the beginning,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “No consensus has been reached, not even close.” 

The Rhode Island PUC is currently seeking public comment on the scope of its gas docket — what questions the investigation should seek to answer and what goals it should meet. Chretien said he is encouraged that they “are asking a lot of the right questions.” 

The Rhode Island communities of Newport, Portsmouth and Middletown, which together comprise Aquidneck Island, have been wrestling with whether to expand or reign in natural gas since 2019, when system failures resulted in the prolonged loss of gas service to more than 7,000 customers in the bitter winter cold. The island sits at the end of the pipeline network, making it more vulnerable to problems. 

Narragansett Electric’s then-parent company, National Grid, conducted a study and came up with a variety of potential fixes, including building a second gas pipeline or new gas facilities, or curbing gas use through energy efficiency measures and heat pumps. 

The fix the utility is currently proposing is to make permanent an existing liquid natural gas storage facility in Portsmouth. The facility, sited as a temporary measure after the outage, provides peak-shaving capacity and backup supply during the winter months. It has been the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors, due to noise and safety concerns.

The permitting process for the facility, before the Energy Facility Siting Board, “really should be viewed through the lens of the Act on Climate,” Chretien said. “Eventually, we are going to have to electrify all the heating. Where do you start, geographically or otherwise, to get that done?”

State Rep. Terri Cortvriend, who represents Middletown and Portsmouth, said she believes the island is a “perfect demonstration place” for decarbonization efforts. She would like the future-of-gas docket to consider authorizing networked geothermal projects. 

Geothermal systems use underground pipes to tap the earth’s energy for heating and cooling. Massachusetts has approved several geothermal pilots, including one overseen by Eversource that will install a networked geothermal system in a section of a relatively dense Framingham neighborhood.

“I think that’s where the future is, as we try to phase out gas,” Cortvriend said. “It would be great to do it on Aquidneck Island.” 

The proceeding is expected to last well into 2023. Webster said it is imperative that the process goes “beyond an academic exercise” and lays out a specific plan for moving forward. 

For example, he said, the plan should address “do we implement a moratorium on new connections, and if so, when does that start? Is it systemwide, or do we focus on the residential side? When do we stop making the problem worse?”

For its part, PPL Corp. appears more focused on moving toward lowering emissions from gas generation by investing in new technologies. 

In a sustainability report released last week, the company said it has set a goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. When it comes to finding ways to lower emissions from its gas distribution operations across Kentucky and Rhode Island, the company said it is prioritizing research into carbon capture and sequestration, as well as hydrogen production and blending.

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe,, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.