The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s (NPCC) sixth power plan adds new emphasis to the alternative of more direct use of natural gas for space and water heating as opposed to added gas-fired electric generation. An added consideration for the gas conversion option is climate change, the NPCC’s latest report said.

In devoting a separate section of its latest five-year regional power planning update to natural gas, the NPCC acknowledged that it enters somewhat murky waters when it appears to promote more direct use of gas, and therefore more conversions of electric space/water heating in a region defined by its heavy use of low-cost hydroelectric supplies. Since its first plan nearly three decades ago, the NPCC said three questions remain concerning direct gas use in the Northwest:

In the sixth plan, NPCC added a fourth question — How does the conversion from electricity to gas for space/water heating impact the region’s carbon emissions? The federally created council draws short of promoting more direct use of gas as a means of operating a more efficient electrical system, while the increase of conversions continues to be a planning alternative.

“The council has not included programs in its power plans to encourage the direct use of natural gas, or to promote conversion of electric space and water heating to natural gas,” the NPPC’s sixth plan said. “The council policy on fuel choice has consistently been that fuel conversions, while they do reduce electricity use, are not ‘conservation’ under the [1980] Northwest Power Act because they do not constitute a more efficient use of electricity.”

NPCC analyses assume the physics of gas (thermodynamics) make it more efficient for the two widespread end uses (except when compared to electric heat pumps), but it is more costly to purchase and install, making economic advantages more dependent on saving enough in ongoing energy costs to pay for the higher initial costs.

With financial backing from the Northwest Gas Association and combination utility Puget Sound Energy, the NPCC is in the midst of conducting an updated economic analysis of residential space/water heating conversions from electric to gas. This updated study is also looking at the cost, risk and carbon emissions impact of conversions to gas, the NPCC’s latest power plan said.

The overall new plan concludes that over the next 20 years as much as 85% of the Northwest’s growth in electricity demand can be satisfied by energy efficiency, and it still does not count the gas conversions as part of those efficiencies.

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