A debate about the future of natural gas in Vancouver is expected to heat up today's city council meeting.

NPA Councillor Melissa De Genova will be proposing a motion to allow natural gas from fossil fuels to be added as an acceptable fuel source in the city's renewable energy plans.

Earlier this summer, the city approved the Zero Emissions Building Plan, which proposes to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from all new homes and other buildings by 2030.

It is part of Vancouver's Renewable City Strategy, which aims to have all buildings in the city run on renewable energy by 2050, effectively phasing out fossil fuels.

Initially, the move was misinterpreted as a "ban on natural gas" but the city later clarified its position.

While fossil-fuel derived natural gas would be phased out, the city said people would still be able to use renewable natural gas — usually derived from sources like methane captured at landfills or manufactured through biofuels.

Existing homes and buildings would be able to use fossil-fuel derived natural gas until 2050.

It also pointed out that natural gas provider FortisBC already provides renewable natural gas — to around 900 customers in Vancouver.

FortisBC opposed

FortisBC, however, has been a vocal opponent of the plan for months.

In a letter to council in July, it said the plan would effectively force 108,000 of its natural gas customers to switch to renewable energy sources.

FortisBC spokesperson Jason Wolfe said customers would have to choose higher cost options like electricity to heat their homes. Consumer options could be limited because newer buildings might not even include natural gas infrastructure.

"With the various restrictions, you've only got a couple of uses left for natural gas and developers might just choose to not even install natural gas as a result because it may be too expensive for them to bring to their building," he said.

"Then the customer won't even have the option to try renewable natural gas."

Landfill methane gas capture

One form of renewable natural gas is methane captured from disintegrating organic compounds in a landfill. (CBC)

Even if the option of renewable natural gas existed, he said, it is an imperfect one.

In a letter written to council yesterday, FortisBC said it doesn't have enough renewable natural gas to supply its existing customer base.

"Right now because it's an emerging technology, the supply is limited and the price is higher," he said. "If we don't have enough, customers won't be able to use natural gas in Vancouver. We're certainly hopeful technology will improve, but right now what is available isn't enough," Wolfe said. 

Renewable natural gas is cheaper than electricity, he said, but it is still twice as expensive as fossil-fuel derived natural gas.

NPA Councillor Melissa De Genova supported FortisBC's position.

"We're looking at [natural gas] being one of the most affordable types of energy ... We all have to do what we can for the environment and move forward — but at what cost? We have to balance that with affordability, especially considering Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities to live."

De Genova's proposal asks staff to put forth recommendations to amend the Zero Emissions Building Plan to include any cleaning burning — including fossil-fuel derived — natural gas as an acceptable fuel source.

Not about kind of fuel, but amount of fuel used

In response, Vision Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer said there was time to resolve the problem of fuel source.

Besides, she said, fuel source is not the main point of the plan.

"We have a system in Vancouver that wastes lot of energy," she said.  "It's less about the kinds of energy [we're using] but how much energy is going in."

She argued the building plan is largely focused on improving building standards for new homes — like thicker insulation and higher quality windows to preserve heat within homes. Buildings would use less energy overall, she said, and consumers would then have to purchase less energy.

As an example, Reimer said moving from an older home to a newer building — subject to a more energy efficient code — has saved her over $100 in natural gas costs per month.

"If we can make something more energy efficient, why wouldn't we want to do that for new housing standards?"

With files from The Early Edition


To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Councillor De Genova and Councillor Reimer on future of natural gas in Vancouver