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April 2014
Advantage Carolinas
By Jim Froneberger

     The winter of 2014 was one for the record books in Charlotte and the Carolinas. Thanks to the polar vortex, January 2014 was the coldest January in 37 years and the seventh coldest since record keeping began in 1878.

     While the exceptionally frigid weather and icy conditions may have hindered our day-to-day activities, it didn’t daunt Piedmont Natural Gas, the energy services company that serves over a million customers in portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. As a matter of fact, on January 7, the company set a single-day record for natural gas volume at 30 percent greater than its previous daily record set in 2010.

     While keeping us all warm may be the most visible role Piedmont Natural Gas plays in the Carolinas, the products and services they provide are also becoming increasingly important to our region’s competitiveness in the global economy.

     Natural gas is proving to be one of North America’s most abundant and affordable energy sources, one that has great potential to boost economic growth, help our balance of trade, and reduce the geopolitical risk that is often associated with energy-related products.

 

Global Advantage

     Over the last decade, America has seen natural gas emerge as a leading source of domestic energy. Technological advances such as 3D seismic technology have allowed geologic formations to be examined with greater accuracy, reducing the frequency of dry wells. Advances in horizontal directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, (commonly called fracking) have allowed new supplies of natural gas to be extracted from shale formations deep underground.

     Ten years ago, shale accounted for less than 5 percent of America’s 50 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) of natural gas production. But now, shale represents a full 40 percent of today’s 65 bcfd domestic gas production. As a result of these new resources, the cost of natural gas has declined significantly in the U.S., giving America a competitive advantage over economies in Europe and Asia.

     “This game-changing era of natural gas abundance has transpired at a time when our country and our economy really needed some infusion,” says Thomas E. Skains, chairman, president, and CEO of Piedmont Natural Gas. “This abundance of supply has lowered the price of natural gas from, conservatively speaking, $7.50 per million BTUs prior to the recession, to about $4.50 per million BTUs today. That’s a $3 savings on the 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that are consumed annually in the United States, representing $75 billion in energy savings per year.”

     Skains goes on to say that it still costs over $10 to buy a million BTUs of natural gas in Europe and over $15 in Asia. As a result, many global companies—particularly chemical companies—now have an economic incentive to move manufacturing back to the United States to take advantage of America’s cheap natural gas.

     In years past, energy experts believed the U.S. would need to import foreign natural gas to meet our needs. Now, as a result of shale production, efforts are underway to liquefy U.S. natural gas and sell it abroad as liquefied natural gas (LNG). While the certification and approval process for LNG facilities is long, LNG export has the potential to boost domestic job creation, help the balance of trade, and positively impact global energy security by reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia for its natural gas supplies.

     While there is no shale production currently taking place in the Carolinas, preliminary studies indicate that the Sandhills region between Southern Pines, Fayetteville and Raleigh may have the right geology for shale production. Work is currently underway by the N.C. Energy and Mining Commission to evaluate an appropriate regulatory framework for possible shale development in North Carolina.

     While fracking is controversial because of potential environmental risks—including ground water contamination, air pollution and chemical spills—the natural gas industry believes that hydraulic fracturing is safe when performed in a responsible way and with proper oversight. Skains agrees, and says the economic benefits to our region are significant.

     “If we can convert N.C. from an energy-importing state to an energy-producing state, over the long term, we can create lower wholesale energy costs, which would be an added incentive for firms to locate here,” he explains. “The cost of energy at a retail level in N.C. is on average competitive with other regions of the country, but I think we would be even more competitive if we had wholesale supply and production here.”

 

A Foundation for Transition

     In addition to being abundant and cheap, natural gas combustion is highly efficient and emits less carbon dioxide and pollutants compared to other fossil fuels. Burning natural gas emits about half of the carbon dioxide of coal combustion, and natural gas is 30 percent cleaner than oil and 15 percent cleaner than propane. Natural gas is also a very efficient fuel to transport from the source of production to the end consumer, delivering about 90 percent of the energy produced at the source to the customer. By comparison, electricity delivered over wires captures only about 35 percent to 40 percent of the raw energy produced.

     One way that natural gas is helping reduce carbon emissions is by helping electric utilities transition their power production away from coal. Historically, coal has represented about 50 percent of the electric power generation in the U.S., with both natural gas and nuclear trailing at about 20 percent each. But with the dramatic drop in natural gas prices over the last decade and the increasing regulatory requirements to clean up old coal plants, natural gas has made huge inroads into coal’s dominance. Today, natural gas serves about 30 percent of the power generation market and coal has declined to about 40 percent.

     “If you look at what natural gas has done for our country’s carbon emissions, CO2 emissions peaked in about 2007,” remarks Skains. “By 2012, CO2 had declined back to 1995 levels, with coal to natural gas conversions by power plants being a major contributor to that decline.”

     The natural gas industry has also benefitted from increasingly efficient residential energy use, as a result of more energy-efficient homebuilding standards as well as more energy-efficient appliances. In 1970, the U.S. natural gas industry served about 38 million residential customers. By 2010, that number had grown by 70 percent to 65 million customers, but the annual amount of natural gas consumed by those 65 million customers—about 5 trillion cubic feet—was the same amount that 38 million customers consumed in 1970. That’s a 40 percent efficiency improvement over 40 years.

     Piedmont Natural Gas is converting one out of every three of their 900-vehicle fleet to natural gas and is adding compressed natural gas fueling stations that will be used by the fleet and also made available to the public. Skains says the company foresees a potential role as an infrastructure enabler for the vehicular natural gas market—building, owning and operating fueling stations where and when it makes economic sense to do so.

     Skains is quick to add that, while they think the ultimate market potential is huge, they believe the vehicular market will develop slowly because of the infrastructure required and the need for vehicles to come off the assembly line ready to burn natural gas rather than relying on more expensive conversion kits.

     Natural gas is often described as a bridge fuel—a cleaner fossil fuel alternative that will help bridge the gap until truly renewable sources such as wind and solar are more widespread and economically viable. But Piedmont’s Skains says that he sees natural gas playing a much larger role in our energy future—heating our homes, generating electricity and running our vehicles—in partnership with renewables for decades to come.

     “We think natural gas is actually a foundation fuel, or if it is a bridge, it’s a bridge too long to see the other side,” he suggests. “Natural gas is a long-term foundation for that transition to a lower carbon energy economy. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so natural gas generation of power can be the primary backup to fill those valleys. We are very complementary to the renewable effort, but we are an important low carbon primary energy source as well.”

 

A Real Value Proposition

     In its three-state market area, Piedmont Natural Gas owns and operates over 22,000 miles of distribution pipelines and about 3,000 miles of transmission pipelines—the larger diameter, high pressure lines used to transport the gas between main distribution points. The company operates in about two-thirds of North Carolina’s 100 counties; the Anderson, Greenville/Spartanburg, and Gaffney markets in the upstate of South Carolina; and the Nashville, Tennessee, metro area. The company also has a number of joint venture investments in interstate pipeline projects, storage facilities, and other strategic energy-related activities.

     Of the company’s one million customers, about 900,000 are residential customers, about 100,000 are commercial customers, and 2,500 are industrial/manufacturing firms. In terms of revenue margin, residential demand contributes about 55 percent, commercial 25 percent, and industrial and power generation markets each contribute about 8 percent to 9 percent.

     This new era of abundant, low cost natural gas is also having a profound positive impact on the growth of Piedmont Natural Gas’s business. Despite the recession, the company has enjoyed 4 percent compound earnings per share growth over the last five years, and EPS growth accelerated further to 7 percent in fiscal 2013. They are forecasting annual customer growth of 1.5 percent, or about 15,000 customers, primarily driven by new residential construction.

     The fastest growing market in terms of revenue contribution has been power generation. Duke Energy has been actively decommissioning older coal plants and replacing them with new combined cycle natural gas plants generally located on the same site as the old coal plant. Since 2010, Piedmont has invested over half a billion dollars to build infrastructure to support Duke’s new plants. As a result, serving Duke Energy’s needs now comprises almost half of the annual natural gas throughput in the Piedmont Natural Gas system.

     In addition to investing to support new residential, commercial, industrial, and power generation markets, Piedmont Natural Gas is also investing to maintain, rehabilitate and modernize their existing pipeline and support infrastructure. They have already replaced or retrofitted over 40 percent of their 3,000 miles of transmission pipelines and have an annual program in place to continue that process for years to come.

     As a retail energy service provider, Piedmont Natural Gas has a vested interest in promoting the success of the communities that it serves, believing in the notion that if you help grow the communities in which you operate, you will also grow your company.

     “We are joined at the hip with the success of all the communities that we serve, and we actively support those communities’ economic growth and development activities,” affirms Skains. “We want our pipeline facilities to help attract manufacturing investment decisions. We ask what kind of enhancement or expansion would we need to do to serve that new plant, and can we do it economically?”

     In the residential market, the company says 90 percent of the new homes being built on or near their gas mains are built as gas-served homes. But Skains says that despite their status as a regulated monopoly energy service provider, there isn’t a single potential customer that has to use their product.

     “We have to compete our way into every home, business or manufacturer,” admits Skains. “Natural gas is a discretionary product and the customer has a choice. But when you look at the attributes of our product and our services, we think the choice to go natural gas is compelling.”

     “Natural gas is abundant, it’s domestic, it’s clean, it’s efficient, and it is affordable,” he concludes. “Our track record as a service provider is also delivering safe and reliable service. So when you put all of that together, we feel that we offer a real value proposition for our customers.”

 

Jim Froneberger is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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