Views from a Visit with APGA

Last week, I was honored to be invited to address the American Public Gas Association’s annual marketing conference. Millions of consumers across the country receive natural gas service from community-owned distribution utilities.

Over 150 attendees spent three days examining trends affecting how customers view and use natural gas in their homes, businesses and vehicles. Spending a day with APGA gave me a great opportunity to spread the word about the Partnership’s mission and to re-learn some lessons about how natural gas distribution utilities view the energy policy landscape. I say “re-learn” because I spent two happy years representing APGA at federal agencies in the mid-2000’s.

Just like electric utilities, natural gas utilities are driven by the obligation to provide least-cost service and an extremely reliable product. They also feel whip-sawed by the ever-changing regulatory shuffle over the years in Washington, D.C. and the states. Attendees are paying particularly close attention to California’s drive to 100 percent renewables and the current fad for electrifying every possible application. Natural gas utilities are also increasingly aware that business forces outside the usual energy players are talking to consumers about choices for energy usage and control of home applications.

I was able to share observations from my first year with the Partnership and our ongoing campaigns on retail deregulation, natural gas hedging, and right-sizing payments for private solar. While deregulation and net metering aren’t directly of concern to gas distribution utilities, all energy stakeholders have a vested interest in keeping elected and appointed officials engaged in an ongoing, productive conversation about the realities of providing always-on, affordable service to millions of consumers. Hedging issues are a bit different animal, as natural gas utilities also depend on hedging to control supply and transportation costs.

Questions from the audience covered a lot of ground. Using electric co-op statistics we discussed shifts in the electric generation portfolio mix. Co-ops report that their national fuel mix was 54 percent coal in 2014, but 41 percent in 2016, while natural gas use went from 18 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2016. Understandably, the changing ratios of coal-natural gas-renewables are of interest to utilities who must rely on one fuel and pipeline network to deliver to consumers.

Natural gas utilities are curious about battery storage trends and electric vehicles; accordingly, I shared some Partnership observations from last fall’s blog “What’s in Store for Storage.” The audience seemed to agree that residential storage and a mature electric transportation infrastructure are not yet right around the corner. A robust effort is underway to study and deploy Natural Gas Vehicles.

The best presentations, in my view, give the speaker many insights and questions to follow up on, and that certainly was the case for my visit with APGA. Coming away with some old friendships and knowledge rekindled, I’ll be looking more closely at model energy communities to see how electric and gas choices are presented to consumers, and at LNG export issues to see how supply may impact the bottom line bills for homes and businesses across the nation. And, I’ll hope to bring news from a key natural gas gathering this June – the World Gas Conference here in Washington, D.C.