How's the Water?

How's the Water?

Image shows three goldfish swimming together just below the surface of water.May 8, 2024

By Washington Gas President Blue Jenkins

A famous parable describes an old fish meeting two others while swimming in the ocean. He asks, “'How’s the water, boys?' The two youngsters paddle out of sight before asking each other, “What the heck is water?'

We may not have fins and gills—and if you do, you must have an exciting life!—but like those young fish, we can become so immersed in our world that we lose perspective. The natural gas industry’s role in our energy landscape dramatically illustrates this.

Let’s be frank: our data show that a small but vocal minority of people think the natural gas industry should disappear altogether. However, when we consider the practicalities of this economy-wide transformation and look at established data, it quickly becomes evident that natural gas is a critical and indispensable component of our energy mix today and in the future.  

The steady flow of natural gas fuels us as we live, work and play. Its silent reliability has become our “water”—so omnipresent that this safe and reliable energy is easy to take for granted. It supports our modern lifestyle in countless ways.

Consider the far-reaching impact of natural gas on our global economy and the small businesses that drive our region.  It fuels innovation while supporting numerous core industries, from education to healthcare and commerce to construction.

Enjoying the benefits of natural gas is only possible because of our dedicated employees and repeated investments that maintain a vast network of essential infrastructure. We’re also focused on operating efficiently and safely, helping our customers use energy more effectively and investing in lower-carbon solutions. We advocate for energy choice and support balanced energy policies.

Supporting balanced energy policies is absolutely critical as we help our communities resolve the energy trilemma. This term refers to the three interrelated challenges of making our future energy ecosystem affordable, reliable and aligned with climate goals. Washington Gas has focused on balanced energy choices for decades.  

If we aren’t mindful, discussions about our future energy ecosystem can become more about concepts and less about delivering real-world solutions. We must never forget that providing energy is all about people. Supplying robust options empowers everyone in our communities to make the choices that allow them to live their best lives.

Resolving the energy trilemma underscores the importance of providing energy choices, which is especially critical for vulnerable populations. U.S. Department of Energy data finds that at a national level, financially at-risk households spend a more significant portion of their income on home energy costs (often referred to as energy burden). Studies also find that these families face an energy burden three times higher than other households.

Closer to home, DC Fiscal Policy Institute data listed the 2022 D.C. poverty rate at 13.3%. Washington Gas alone serves approximately 35,000 at-risk customers.  Rapidly or dramatically increasing energy costs can significantly impact such households.

Many current conversations surround the concept of full-house electrification. While that approach has passionate advocates, it’s simply not yet practical or cost-effective to rip out well-functioning, critical appliances and replace them overnight with all-electrical appliances. Such a step often requires changes to household wiring while also impacting the electrical distribution and wholesale generation system.

Beyond feasibility, our policymakers must remain focused on customer affordability – both the upfront costs of new appliances and the new impact on the monthly bill. You may already know the following statistic from the American Gas Association (AGA) because it’s so striking. Natural gas is 3.3 times more affordable than electricity and significantly more affordable than several other residential energy sources for the same amount of energy delivered.

Chart shows 2023 updates for Washington Gas Accelerated Pipe Replacement Programs.

Tripling a household’s energy costs isn’t an option, especially for those struggling financially. Too often already, friends and neighbors in our communities ask themselves, “Do I pay my utility bill or buy medicine or food?” Our duty as energy providers is to support energy affordability where possible, such as the Washington Area Fuel Fund. Again, a balanced perspective on the energy trilemma means that we must always think about affordability as we work to deliver climate goals. 

Affordable energy and its economic benefits strengthen consumer choices. Any significant cost change impacts individuals’ ability to live and work where they choose. Everyone, especially those living in underserved households, deserves secure choices aligned with their budgets and lifestyles.

You can tell that I like data! Let’s keep going.

The AGA also finds that homes using natural gas for heating, cooking and clothes drying save an average of $1,132 per year compared to those using electricity. Natural gas has also saved American families $125 billion over the past 10 years.

Natural gas is a huge success story. This is good news when you realize that energy use is growing. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that primary energy will increase between 16% and 57% by 2050. Having choices and options is a way to help pay for this new growth.

To proactively address these growing needs, Washington Gas has committed to modernizing our pipelines with $1.7 billion of capital to deploy over the next five years through approved and filed accelerated pipe replacement programs. Programs such as PROJECTpipes (D.C.), SAVE (Virginia) and STRIDE (Maryland) are enhancing system safety and efficiency as we replace cast iron and bare steel pipe with new corrosion-resistant high-density polyethylene pipes.

These long-term initiatives have logged noteworthy results, such as 39.58 miles of pipe replaced in 2023 alone. Each foot of upgraded pipe strengthens both safety and reliability. As an added benefit, our modernization activity has cumulatively reduced 358,602 metric tons of greenhouse gas equivalents as of the end of 2023.

Should innovative natural gas solutions be part of our shared energy future? Absolutely, and that’s one reason we’re advancing our renewable natural gas initiatives. More simply known as RNG, this form of natural gas is produced from local sources, such as organic waste from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and agricultural operations.

RNG offers a lower-carbon fuel source that supports the same applications as conventional natural gas, including electricity generation, heating, industrial applications and transportation. It can also be stored and transported using the existing natural gas infrastructure instead of the cost and delays of new delivery systems.

It’s no secret that AI is already energy-intensive and will create even more unprecedented demands on our power grids. As the Washington Post recently reported, Northern Virginia alone needs the equivalent of several large nuclear power plants to serve all the new data centers planned and under construction. As a fuel source, RNG can help data centers meet their energy needs.

Tomorrow is bright and built upon our shared history. Washington was a small town when Washington Gas brought light to its first customer, the U.S. Capitol, in 1848. We have grown with this community ever since and care deeply about the 1.2 million customers we serve today.

We are proud to be there for our customers and will continue to work every day to earn your trust and confidence. WGL is committed to meeting changing energy needs in a lower-carbon future. Our plans for tomorrow are firmly rooted in our service to our customers and communities today.

So, as we consider the challenges of the energy trilemma, let’s not forget the wisdom of that savvy old fish. Natural gas helps create the safe, dependable “water” surrounding our daily lives. That’s a comforting reality as we swim toward our shared-energy future. 

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