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Stanford gamely amplifies SoCalGas marketing messages

Uploaded: May 23, 2021
Stanford did not do itself or its audience any favors when it hosted SoCalGas as part of its weekly Energy Seminar on May 17. The uncritical overview of a “net zero” pledge by a large gas utility with a history of misleading and even illegal strategies to promote natural gas was unbefitting of a university that aims to raise a generation of leaders to combat climate change, and it cannot have helped SoCalGas establish any credibility or make meaningful connections.

To be clear, I am all in favor of inviting oil and gas companies and utilities to participate in this forum. These companies need to reinvent themselves to stay aligned with our fight against climate change and to stay solvent in our quickly changing energy economy. They need help and we should help them. But that requires an honest, fact-based conversation focused on the difficult issues.

In 2019 over 70% of SoCalGas’ revenue came from residential customers, who are increasingly switching to electric heat with the state’s encouragement.

Over 70% of SoCalGas revenue comes from residential sales. Source: Energy Information Administration

How will SoCalGas maintain their infrastructure while their traditional source of revenue evaporates? If they are forced to increase rates, won’t that push more customers away from their product? As the largest gas distribution utility in the United States, SoCalGas is in a good position to explore paths and demonstrate how this transition can be made. They say they want to be a leader. This could have been a fascinating, quantitative talk laying out some of the challenges and key milestones, lessons they have learned along the way, and ideas for how their business might evolve.

Yet there was little of that. Director of Sustainability Michelle Sim spent the first 15 minutes or so simply asking the audience to keep an open mind, using various personal anecdotes to illustrate her point. She then took a superficial walk through the company’s slick “net zero” commitment presentation. Instead of using 15 minutes for Q&A, as other presenters do, she talked through some of that time, then showed a bland 5-minute marketing video that went over the same content. There was maybe one question and it was a softball.

I was dismayed. I was dismayed by Stanford’s obsequious and uncritical attitude in hosting this guest speaker. And I was dismayed by SoCalGas’ reliance on mostly content-free marketing material to address an issue of increasing importance to our state and our planet. The vast majority (96%) of SoCalGas’ emissions come from their customers’ use of the fuel that they distribute. Yet they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the efficiency of their buildings and fleet, and their reduction of fugitive emissions, all of which are in the remaining 4%. During another recent interview with Ms. Sim, after which she’d talked about the company’s efforts to switch to paperless billing and to replace styrofoam cups in their offices with ceramic coffee mugs, the interviewer gushed “It’s so incredible, because your company’s view of sustainability is so comprehensive…. It extends beyond just the product that you sell.” No. No, it’s not incredible. It’s a deeply cynical and ultimately harmful strategy. Distract from the thing that really matters -- the company’s sales of gas to homes and small businesses -- by talking about everything else.

The International Energy Agency just released a report detailing what actions it believes are needed for the planet to stay below the 1.5C of warming threshold. There is tremendous opportunity for a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable energy economy. But we need to act immediately to wean ourselves from fossil fuel.

See here for a readable version of this graphic from the International Energy Agency’s recent report on how to stay below 1.5C of warming.

California has been acting along these lines for years, and is now aggressively targeting gas in buildings, the source of the vast majority of SoCalGas’ revenue.

CARB proposals to accelerate deep decarbonization. Source: CARB Presentation on Deep Decarbonization, November 2020

How will SoCalGas evolve in this context? Ms. Sim did touch on some topics worth going into. For example, SoCalGas has led an effective energy efficiency program for years, and efficiency will continue to be very important for our buildings. How would they like to expand on it, and what policies would they like to see to support it? SoCalGas is also looking for ways to make use of their underground infrastructure and expertise in the evolving energy economy. Hydrogen will be needed at ports and airports, where batteries are likely to remain inadequate for heavy, long-haul transport like shipping, planes, and long-distance rail and trucks. What role can SoCalGas play, and what are some of the challenges? Similarly, carbon capture may be needed for tough-to-decarbonize areas like cement manufacturing and seasonal resilience in the power supply. (1) Can SoCalGas expertise and infrastructure be used to transport the CO2 from the source to where it will be stored?

Unfortunately, much of SoCalGas’ recent effort has been addressed at propping up their residential business, for example by blending in “renewable natural gas”, which appears to be at best a short-term and pricy strategy that won’t scale. They are excited about their Hydrogen Home effort, about which one critic remarked "I think their hydrogen home ... is probably the single most expensive way to have a zero-emissions home that I can possibly imagine." SoCalGas would be better off aligning with California’s direction, abandoning its lawsuit against the state over its policies, ceasing to fund a lobbying front for gas-powered homes, and instead focusing on these other difficult and important areas.

The talk that Stanford hosted, complete with references to “pillars” and “intersectionality” and “digitalization”, was a pablum fest of marketing speak, interlaced with personal anecdotes about open-mindedness and thriftiness that did nothing to further our knowledge of or interest in the steep challenges that SoCalGas and the rest of us are facing. To push ahead at an adequate pace, we need to have honest and substantial conversations that enable us to help each other. Unfortunately, Stanford and SoCalGas demonstrated just the opposite.

Notes and References
1. Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson argues, contrary to the IEA and a number of other organizations, that we can save both money and time by doubling down on existing technologies (wind, solar, batteries, geothermal, and hydro) rather than pursuing the riskier and potentially costlier strategies of nuclear energy and carbon capture.

Current Climate Data (April 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on May 23, 2021 at 9:41 am

Tom is a registered user.

Thanks Sherry, I had a similar feeling of being talked down to by SoCalGas's person. But it was interesting to see how cynical they are (about what they are doing to interfere with urgently needed climate preservation progress) and how stupid they think consumers and policy makers are. I tried to envision all the other Zoom audience with mics centrally muted initially typing respectful questions and eventually just shaking their heads. I typed the same question this time as I asked their R&D head a few years ago: Is SoCalGas looking at ways to use its skills, people and systems to pivot from delivering a chemical to buildings, to instead delivering an energy service (warmed water and building thermal comfort ) instead? For example like Stanford's SESI piped heat pump system that decarbonized hundreds of buildings at once with technology familiar to gas utilities [buried pipes and compressor stations]. Web Link
The SoCalGas head of R&D looked like a deer in the headlights and claimed an inability to see what I meant. I now envision SoCalGas's pipes to buildings to be a bit like old AT&T's copper landlines, but with less salvage value. SoCalGas will continue to fight-ugly behind the scenes and act pretty in front of the curtain for their corporate survival vision of a papered-over dystopia. We need to accept their warning that they will continue to resist meaningful progress and will substitute green-washed pablum in front of the curtain while subverting policy progress behind it.

Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 24, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Stanford dropped the veil and showed their true face on sustainability. Their transportation commitments appear to be falling apart as well.

Posted by d page, a resident of Midtown,
on May 25, 2021 at 9:28 am

d page is a registered user.

Companies who benefit from pollution spend tons of money to mislead the public. Here's a few quotes/links:

"net-zero pledges by the oil majors are tactics deployed time to produce more oil and gas"

"Climate disinformation has had many negative effects"

"Revelations about Exxon Mobil's campaign came from...the Los Angeles Times... documented its efforts to manipulate public opinion"

"the advertising industry...indirectly causes emissions by promoting tobacco and beef, whose production has been linked to deforestation and pollution. Similarly, it encourages people to buy Sports Utility Vehicles and to fly for leisure, both powered by fossil fuels, the report added" Web Link

"These campaigns are run by paid consultants...and 'often obscure the industry's role, portraying pro-petroleum groups as grass-roots movements'
...gas-powered utilities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing campaigns that hire social media influencers to make cooking with gas stoves seem cool and trendy, despite the indoor air pollution they create.
Web Link

Posted by Petra Karenter, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 25, 2021 at 2:29 pm

Petra Karenter is a registered user.

I can't say I agree with SoCal Gas's position, but I'm glad they were a part of the event. It's important not to get locked into one's own self-righteous echo chamber.

As the French philosopher Emile Chartier put: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have."

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 27, 2021 at 2:58 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

Regarding "we can save both money and time by doubling down on existing technologies (wind, solar, batteries, geothermal, and hydro) rather than pursuing the riskier and potentially costlier strategies of nuclear energy and carbon capture.", I would think that batteries fall in the "riskier and potentially costlier" category, while nuclear falls in the "existing technologies" category. After all, France seems to be doing well with the latter.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on May 28, 2021 at 10:52 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Mondoman: Really interesting comment, thanks.

My 2c: Batteries are definitely a work in progress, but I'm not sure I'd consider them to be especially risky or costly. There are certainly unknowns and we absolutely need to make them more sustainable. But the magnitude of risk is not high imo and the tech evolution is pretty steady. Nuclear, on the other hand, is unaffordable in the US without significant innovation. And that I would say is considerably risky given the tech involved. We are and should work on it imo -- it's too powerful a tech to ignore -- but it's not going to happen quickly. I like your question/observation, though.

BTW, regarding France's nuclear program, there's an interesting article here about the waste aspect:

"France produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year. And although only a fraction of that is highly toxic, more than 60 years after getting into nuclear energy, the country still has no definitive way to cope with it."

They're wondering if they can zap the waste with lasers to turn it into non-radioactive atoms. It's basically still a science experiment afaict. There's not a lot of waste in volume, but it lasts a long time and must be protected across millenia. It's pretty clear that we are struggling to do that.

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