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Natural gas – decaying infastructure

jackofalltrades777 | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

With all this wildfire talk and natural disasters. I find it interesting that the natural gas line infrastructure in the USA is in really bad shape and in need of billions of dollars to keep it maintained. There are constant leaks in the lines, which creates ground contamination in both soil and water, and of course gas explosions which causes structure fires and injures or kills people. This year the Boston disaster was a vivid reminder of how the infrastructure is in bad shape.

Per FracTracker Alliance :

“230 natural gas explosions between 2010 and 2016 that cost $3.4 billion in damages. Altogether, there were 470 injuries and 100 deaths. The total number of incidents were 4,215. Of those, equipment failure accounted for 1,438; corrosion failure made up 752 and, excavation damage was 406. Texas accounted for 1,102 and California made up 297.”

So from a green building and ecological mindset. A home that uses natural gas is not exactly “green” due to the carbon footprint it takes to source gas through fracking. Then the leaks it produces and the resulting carbon monoxide it creates when used inside of a home. As homes get “tighter” the potential of carbon monoxide poisoning and death increases. On average, about 400 Americans die per year due to CO poisoning.

I would be curious to hear and read some thoughts about this topic. I for one opted OUT and did not install natural gas in my home. It is 100% electric, using a heat pump as the heat source, in addition to utilizing passive house techniques to heat the home during winter via the always present sun.


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  1. Jon_R | | #1

    On the other hand, the electric grid needs billions in upgrades, "Power plants that burn fossil fuels or materials made from fossil fuels, and some geothermal power plants, are the sources of nearly 40% of total U.S. energy-related CO2". "Electrical hazards cause more than 300 deaths and 4,000 injuries each year" (USA). Most CO deaths are not natural gas related. And electricity just recently started (allegedly) a fire that caused ~84 deaths and $15B in losses. And far cleaner gas is often displacing dirty coal (yay).

    Despite all this "far more balanced than you portray", I am pro electricity use.

    1. jackofalltrades777 | | #2


      We need electricity in a home, we DO NOT need natural gas. One can go 100% electric alone in a home, while one cannot go 100% gas alone in a home. You're arguing apples to oranges.

      1. Expert Member
        BILL WICHERS | | #5

        There IS NOT sufficient electrical generating capacity to replace natural gas used in heating. This is regardless of what you’re using to do the heating. Electricity has its own dangers. Natural gas will not kill you if the paint scratches off the gas pipe and you touch that pipe. Electricity may well kill you if you contact exposed metal in a piece of wire.

        Everything has its dangers. You require water to live. Every day, in fact. But even a small amount of water can kill you in the right (wrong?) situation.

        Natural gas with modern equipment is pretty safe. I doubt statistically it is any better or worse than electricity.


      2. Jon_R | | #8

        Martin has shown that the grid and power plants (the source of all but part of one electricity problem mentioned) ARE NOT actually needed for homes. And I'm sure he would find it much more convenient if he had nat gas available.

        No, this isn't very practical - so I'll repeat "I am pro electricity use". Not so much for completely one sided and misleading arguments.

  2. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #3

    And out of approximately 76 million natural gas customers in the US alone (according to the EIA), that’s about 0.000009% of customers (using 4,215 total incidents over a 6 year period) expieriencing an “incident” per year. To put that in perspective, using a standard from my usual industry (telecom), how often do you remember your phone not working because of a network outage? Most people will say “never”. Our standard is 99.999% uptime, which we call “five nines”. That means 0.001% unscheduled downtime per year, which works out to about 5 minutes. So little that most people never see an issue.

    Another example: most electrical transmission lines (the big ones on the metal pylons) are designed to be 95% efficient. That means they lose 5% of the energy they transfer as heat. Sounds pretty good right? What other machine is 95% efficient? Not many. There is a 345kv double circuit transmission line maybe 10 miles south of my house. It is capable of carrying about 1 gigawatt worth of electrical energy. 5% losses is how much of 1 billion watts? 50 megawatts. The industry usually uses 1kw as the average load per house, which is where those “this can run so many thousand houses” numbers come from. 50MW, the losses in that one transmission line near my house, could power 50,000 homes. And that’s not just for a day or a month, that’s continually every day, all year long, forever.

    I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t try to be as efficient as we can, we absolutely should. I strive to be as efficient as I can and I try to help others do the same. What I want to point out is that when numbers are looked at as absolutes, they can be misleading. Several thousand issues sounds like a lot until you look at the MASSIVE scale of utility systems. Several thousand issues in your house would be absolutely overwhelming. Several thousand issues across tens of millions of houses becomes a very small number.

    The simple reality is that no utility-scale systems will ever be perfect. Gas lines will always have occasional problems. Water systems will always have some leaks. Electric systems will always have losses. There is no free lunch. Your electric heat pump is efficient to operate, but only under some conditions. The fuel used to generate the electricity that powers your heat pump also overcame all the line losses along the way, so your heat pump used much more fuel energy than just the electrical energy that it consumed. If it gets cold enough, and your primary concern is carbon footprint, at some point natural gas will have lower overall emissions than your heat pump when it’s running on electric auxillary heat. Natural gas is actually a very efficient way to generate heat when looked at as an overall system and not just one home in isolation.

    Natural gas doesn’t contaminate soil and water, it escapes to the atmosphere (which is a different kind of problem). It does this naturally in places like swamps too. Massive amounts of electricity is now generated from natural gas. Some even from landfill gas, which occurs naturally as trash decomposes in a landfill. Natural gas is used because it offers low emissions and it’s cheap. I’d prefer all our electricity came from hydro power and nuclear sources, but that’s unlikely to ever happen.

    The simple fact is that using any source of energy has its dangers. We have safety codes to help make things as safe as possible. The overall benefits to society outweigh the dangers. Without modern utility infrastructure, modern civilization and the population we currently have could not exist. It’s important to remember the MASSIVE scale of these systems and understanding that there will always be some issues with all of them.

    There is no free lunch. Everything is a trade off. Reality is what it is, and we can only work within the boundaries of the physical world.


  3. Expert Member


    Here is a link to Martin's blog on the subject:

    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #6

      It’s an interesting article, but if we transition to all electric, that electricity will have to be generated, and transported. There isn’t nearly enough electrical infrastructure to transport the required power, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d need double or triple the current amount of generation, all of which requires fuel.

      New England does have some very old gas infrastructure which probably needs updating. I know they have a lot of low pressure gas mains, as an example. They should be gradually upgrading all of that. The local gas utilities in my area are constantly rebuilding their system to upgrade and replace old equipment.

      Switching to all electric introduces new issues to deal with though. There is no free lunch. Personally, I think trying to get more transportation on electric power is more beneficial than trying to switch off of natural gas. Automotive vehicles can easily be set to charge at night when there is excess electric capacity, both generation and distribution, and this is with readily available technologies. There is also a bigger overall efficiency gain this way due to the scale of the electric system compared to the relatively inefficient gasoline engines in cars.

      These are all complex issues to deal with. Many trade offs to be made. The trick is to pick the right ones.


      1. Expert Member
        Dana Dorsett | | #13

        >"New England does have some very old gas infrastructure which probably needs updating."

        Make that "...probably needs decommissioning". The cost of updating it is high enough, and the already committed-to decarbonization schedules in New England are short enough that updated gas distribution grids in this region are all but guaranteed to become "stranded assets" well before they're paid-off. Spending that capital on more distributed renewables and grid interconnectivity is a better expenditure of ratepayer funds.

        There are parts of NY where the gas utilities are offering rebates for ground source heat pumps to displace existing gas use to avoid the cost of upgrading the distribution grids:

        >"There IS NOT sufficient electrical generating capacity to replace natural gas used in heating."

        Not now, but the lifecycle cost of new-renewables is cheaper than upgrading the gas infrastructure, and the cost of heating with cold climate heat pumps even at New England's highest regional retail priced electricity is already at cost-parity with gas. If the cost of the infrastructure upgrades for gas get passed on to the gas ratepayers the cost of heating with heat pumps and new-renewables will be lower than with gas. The hard numbers are pretty squishy with lots of rose colored glasses to go around from multiple sides, but the MA attorney general has done a lot of the math on this in rejecting gas infrastructure proposals. The MA governor Baker's (R) has been supportive of both transmission and renewables, and at least a little bit skeptical of the gas industry's arguments, all under the guidance of the MA Energy Secretary, Matt Beaton, who lives in a PassiveHouse he designed and built a heated & cooled with a 2.5 ton Mitsubishi.

        In the time it takes and for the money it takes to upgrade the gas infrastructure there can (and probably will) be sufficient generation and grid capacity to manage the transition to primarily electric space heating, and primarily electric transportation as well.

        New England currently has an over reliance on natural gas for grid power production, about half the annual total in the ISO-New England independent grid operatator's region, but that is pretty much guaranteed to change by 2030 as MA/CT/RI follow through on offshore wind and transmission line connections to Canadian hydro sources. It's really policy in southern New England that drives the numbers in the region- in relative terms "nobody lives there" in VT/NH/ME compare to MA/CT/RI. (CT alone has more people than northern New England, and MA + RI have more than 2x the population of CT.)

        That said, now that LePage won't be around to veto things in ME the pent up demand for more onshore wind and solar in that state are likely to move forward. The bipartisan pro-renewables legislative policy agenda having been thwarted by the governor's pen by 2 terms of LePage. Maine's on-shore wind has several projects-in-waiting that had been targeted toward the MA market.

        The flip in NH to a Democrat dominated legislature (rare for NH) is likely to move quickly to policies more favorable to renewables too, despite the latest of the Sununu (R) dynasty being in the governor's office:

        Over the next decade New England is going to see some pretty massive shifts on grid sources, grid flexibility and grid capacity. There is nothing really to be concerned about about regarding the ability to heat houses & buildings with electricity, or retiring parts of the gas grid in this region.

        Regarding the net efficiency: Even at an average COP of 2 (about what cold climate heat pumps deliver at 0F) and an all combined-cycle natural gas grid it uses about the same amount of fuel to heat with electricity as it takes to heat with condensing gas. At a seasonal average COP of 3 or more (typical, if right-sized) it takes less natural gas to heat with the heat pump. But as noted previously, the overreliance on natural gas for power generation (and heat) and high expense of upgrading /repairing gas capacity means it's cheaper going forward to stick with renewables. Even now the fossil-burners only hit ~2/3 of the regional source during the grid peaks, and that is being blunted in summertime by the uptake of PV, an in the winter by build-out of wind (which has more resource available winter than in summer.) But the offshore wind is going to be a real game changer.

  4. jackofalltrades777 | | #7


    You stated:
    "Natural gas doesn’t contaminate soil and water, it escapes to the atmosphere (which is a different kind of problem). "

    As per the Union of Concerned Scientists:
    The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane, primary component of natural gas that is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years. Preliminary studies and field measurements show that these so-called “fugitive” methane emissions range from 1 to 9 percent of total life cycle emissions.

    Whether natural gas has lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil depends on the assumed leakage rate, the global warming potential of methane over different time frames, the energy conversion efficiency, and other factors. One recent study found that methane losses must be kept below 3.2 percent for natural gas power plants to have lower life cycle emissions than new coal plants over short time frames of 20 years or fewer. And if burning natural gas in vehicles is to deliver even marginal benefits, methane losses must be kept below 1 percent and 1.6 percent compared with diesel fuel and gasoline, respectively.

    What about how gas drilling and fracking destroys the environment? This includes polluting groundwater and surface water.

    1. krom | | #12

      You are questioning zephers statement that leaking natural gas from pipelines doesn't contaminate soil and water, by posting a quote that also states that leaking natural gas doesn't contaminate soil and water lol
      Natural gas always has, and will always will continue to leak into the atmosphere. I'd much rather we collect it, and use it for heating, and power generation, than just let it go to waste.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Peter L,
    As Malcolm pointed out, I've written on this topic ("Natural Gas Pipelines Are Leaking").

    In general, you are preaching to the choir. Most green builders agree with you: If you care about global warming, you should be building an all-electric house.

    1. jackofalltrades777 | | #10


      Why are Jon R and Zephyr arguing in favor of natural gas?

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #11

        Peter L,
        I'm not sure that they are -- and of course, I'm confident that they can speak for themselves.

        I certainly agree with Jon and Zephyr that the main argument against natural gas has nothing to do with explosions or residential hazards, since these hazards aren't demonstrably worse for natural gas than for electricity. Instead, the argument has to do with catastrophic climate change.

        If the human race wants to avoid the worst results of climate change -- and evidence is strong that we won't -- we will need to make large investments in the electricity infrastructure (as we transition to an all-renewable-energy future) as well as large investments in the natural gas infrastructure (to safely seal all leaks and gradually shut down all of the pipelines).

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