A row of gas meters.
Credit: Lisa Davis / Creative Commons

Rhode Island’s top utility regulator says a statewide moratorium on new gas hookups is on the table as the state works to meet its ambitious climate goals.

“That doesn’t mean it happens tomorrow,” said Ronald Gerwatowski, chair of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, during a proceeding Thursday. “But it surely begs us all to ask the question: If not tomorrow, then when?”

Gerwatowski’s comments came as the commission held its first technical conference in its investigation into the future of natural gas.  

A wide-ranging discussion followed about the many challenges and conundrums facing the commission in the so-called “Future of Gas” docket. Regulators opened the investigation in response to the passage of the state Act on Climate, which includes a mandate to zero out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Building emissions, including those that result from the use of natural gas, account for about 35% of the state’s total emissions. The commission regulates the gas distribution system, which is operated by Rhode Island Energy.

The purpose of the first proceeding was “to prepare the commission to make big and ambitious decisions,” said commissioner Abigail Anthony.

The breadth of the challenge ahead was laid out by Rhode Island Energy executives, who provided a factual representation of the state’s gas distribution system. The company has more than 273,000 residential, commercial and industrial gas customers served by some 3,200 miles of gas distribution main, said Michele Leone, vice president of gas.

Through the company’s ongoing pipeline replacement program, 60 to 65 miles of gas main are replaced every year, she said. About half of the mains have been replaced with less leak-prone pipes so far. 

Whether or not to continue that program is a particularly vexing question for the commission, Gerwatowski said. Replacing leak-prone pipes is both a safety issue and an environmental issue, he said. Right now, those infrastructure investments are factored into the rate base and are depreciated over 40 years, a timeline that is now far too long. 

“We could depreciate it more quickly, but that has an impact on rates. So what do we do here?” Gerwatowski said. “Do we stop the program on the assumption we’re going to close the system down,” allowing for some continued methane leaks? 

Or, he said, do they allow the program to continue, and then likely face lawsuits over who should be responsible for the stranded costs once the assets are no longer in use?

Ben Butterworth, director of climate, energy and equity analysis at the Acadia Center, said in response that the commission must prioritize safety above all else first, but could perhaps investigate ways to repair pipes rather than replace them. That would reduce costs and the time period over which the utility is spreading those costs.

“That’s why it’s essential to determine a plan as soon as possible for the future vision of the gas system,” Butterworth said. “It might make sense to do it on a case-by-case basis.”  

When it comes to transitioning from the use of natural gas, the state will need to find pathways “that ensure safety and reliability, equity, and affordability,” said Dan Aas, director at E3, an energy consulting firm representing Rhode Island Energy. 

He recommended a “portfolio-based” approach that might include a combination of air-source heat pumps, hybrid electrification, renewable natural gas, and geothermal. 

He noted that in California, Pacific Gas and Electric is experimenting with targeted electrification, in which they target for electrification a small cluster of customers on a segment of the distribution system that is costly to maintain. 

But the prospect of converting hundreds of thousands of residential customers to air-source heat pumps poses another daunting question, Gerwatowski said. 

“There’s a huge upfront funding cost — where does the funding come from?” he said.

The commission also heard from speakers representing consumer perspectives. Chelsea Siefert, director of planning and development for the Quonset Development Corp., a 3,200-acre business park in North Kingstown with more than 220 companies, urged regulators to consider the impacts of phasing out natural gas on industrial manufacturers. 

For example, she said, burning natural gas generates the high temperatures Toray Plastics requires to convert plastic pellets into plastic film. Toray employs about 600 people at its Quonset facility. 

And Jennifer Wood, executive director of the Center for Justice, which represents low-income utility consumers, called on the commission to prioritize any electrification efforts in the neighborhoods that have been impacted by fossil-fuel pollution for generations due to redlining and other discriminatory lending practices.

In the city of Providence, those old redlined areas now coincide with areas with the highest poverty rates and incidences of childhood asthma, she said. 

“The remedies for meeting the goals of the Act on Climate should be targeted to the neighborhoods that have been the most adversely impacted along the way,” Wood said.

As the next step in the process, the commission will issue an invitation for interested parties to apply to join a stakeholder committee. The committee’s first meeting will likely be next month, said Todd Bianco, chief economic and policy analyst. The overall goal is to have a report with recommendations to the commission by next spring, he said. 

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, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.