Charlottesville studying whether to end provision of natural gas

Both the Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan and the Climate Action Plan set their sights on the future of one of the services provided by the municipal government. 

“The City of Charlottesville owns and maintains a natural gas utility, fossil fuel utility, which we recognize,” said Lauren Hildebrand, the city’s utilities director. “We’ve been operating this utility for over 150 years.” 

This service covers over 21,500 customers in both the city and Albemarle’s urban ring. Hildebrand said her department has efficiency programs and provides for carbon offsets, but a study is taking place for the long-term as the city seeks to be fossil-free by 2050. 

“We want to make sure that we responsibly and accurately determine how the gas utility can be part of the solution in moving forward,” Hildebrand said. “We will ask the consultant to provide us information to look at things from a legal standpoint as well as an economic standpoint.” 

Dr. Hua Feng with Black and Veatch got into the details of the plan for how the study will be conducted. She works for the global advisory division. (presentation)

“In the past few years, we have had a lot of requests supporting natural gas utilities like the city that have decarbonization goals while trying to balance the routine operation and reliable serving of customers  with the objective of trying to decarbonize their service,” Dr. Feng said. 

These include the Southern California Gas CompanyHawaii Gas, and Black Hills Energy. Black and Veatch is also involved with emerging alternatives such as the conversion of a coal-fired plant into a hydrogen-powered plant. 

“We are also helping a couple of hydrogen developers trying to design and establish projects that use renewable energy to produce zero carbon hydrogen,” Dr. Feng said. 

A graphic in Dr. Hua Feng’s presentation to Council (presentation)

Electrification is another alternative that could help the city meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“The objective is really trying to have a review of all possible solutions that the city can undertake in order to meet the carbon reduction objective and also estimate the potential cost and benefit for each of the solutions and highlight the potential impact on the city’s operation systems as well as the customers and its ratepayers,” Dr. Feng said. 

The study is expected to take a year to complete. A separate law firm will issue a legal opinion on whether the city can stop offering new connections. Overall, the study will look at the financial impact of new solutions considering that rates will cover the cost service of new infrastructure that could be required. 

“We’re going to put everything on the table and we will evaluate each of the solutions from the perspective of technical readiness, making sure it is technically feasible,” Dr. Feng said.

Councilor Michael Payne said he was concerned that the presentation had a high emphasis on hydrogen.

“From my understanding that blue hydrogen is not carbon neutral and hydrogen technology is pretty far away from being able to be able to be deployed, certainly in a way that’s carbon neutral on certainly the scale of a municipally owned utility,” Payne said. 

Dr. Feng agreed with that assessment, but said nothing is off the table at this point as the city works toward a goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.  More on this topic as it develops.

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the March 24, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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