May 2022, Vol. 249, No. 5


AGA Chair Embraces Technology as Key to Natural Gas’ Role in Energy Transition

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor 

In 1991, Kim Greene was a newlywed with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and an eye toward working for an Indiana medical device company. But there was little opportunity there for her husband, a pilot, and she agreed to stay in Birmingham, Alabama, for a few months. That supposed short-term decision led to an unexpected career when she landed a job at Southern Company Services, where she was welcomed by an engineering organization that was inclusive and supportive, provided challenging assignments and committed to the communities it served.

Kim Greene

Over 17 years, she continually took on new challenges at Southern Company, moving from engineering to commercial operations to finance, until the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) recruited her to serve as its chief financial officer. During her five years at TVA, she moved to roles as group president, Strategy and External Relations and chief generation officer before returning as president and CEO of Southern Company Services in 2013. The following year, she was named chief operating officer and executive vice president at Southern Company, and in 2018 became chairman, president and CEO of Southern Company Gas, where she oversees an organization serving more than 4 million local distribution company customers in four states and approximately 666,000 retail gas customers through its companies that market natural gas. 

For 2022, she has taken on an additional leadership role as chair of the American Gas Association (AGA), bringing her passion for the industry and its safe delivery of natural gas to the top of the organization. 

P&GJ: What are some of the more promising safety and technology trends you see today within the natural gas utility sector? 

Greene: I think one of the most exciting areas in the industry is in our technology evolution. We are using technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics, and we’re incorporating those outcomes into areas of our business to make them safer, more efficient and more effective. And, of course, our industry produces an immense amount of data and is learning to analyze that data more ably and turn that data into information that can help us run our business better. It’s very exciting to see. 

At Southern Company Gas, we are beginning to invest in our data just like we invest in our physical assets. We recognize data as extraordinarily valuable and worthy of investment, and we just launched an enterprise asset management initiative that will help us move even more rapidly into the future.  

We are using tools such as advanced leak detection technology. We are evaluating opportunities to improve our processes of measuring and monitoring and abating our emissions. Also – and I’m really proud of this – we’re getting much smarter about using probabilistic models and being more risk-based in our approaches, just as we currently had TIMP (transmission integrity management plan) models that are risk-based. We are addressing industrial safety and pipeline safety in that way and looking to also apply this risk-based methodology to cybersecurity standards, as well. So, I believe that this industry has a lot of opportunity to utilize technology, and what I have seen is that we are embracing those opportunities and are finding great value as we began to utilize them in our everyday business.  

P&GJ:  How are utilities such as Southern Company Gas preparing for, or even helping to define the energy transition? How do you view the progress been made by the gas industry?  

Greene: There has been terrific progress made already by the gas industry. Over a 20-year period, Southern Company Gas lowered our annual distribution methane emissions by approximately 50% while increasing the mileage in our system by over 20%. Southern Company has a great record to stand on and we are committed to continuing to improve our results going forward on both the electric and the gas side of our business. Natural gas has been critical in allowing the Southern Company electric generation fleet to significantly lower its greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. All of us at Southern Company are committed to net zero emissions enterprise-wide by 2050.  

We are continuing to accelerate our focus on transitioning our electric generation fleet, as well as focusing on net zero opportunities for our gas distribution business. But we’re thinking beyond the impact we can make from within. We are partnering with natural gas stakeholders along the value chain to address emission reductions from the wellhead to the burner tip, so to speak. We were a co-founder of ONE Future, a coalition of natural gas system companies whose members have committed voluntarily to lower fugitive methane emissions collectively to a number of 1% or less of total natural gas production, and I can point you to our data where we have been reporting for the last few years results that are even better than that.  

We are also working with suppliers to support standards and processes for improving the sustainability of the supply of natural gas – working with suppliers to ensure that their geologic natural gas is as clean as possible and working to develop opportunities for renewable natural gas. Additionally, we are investing in hydrogen research and development to understand how and where we can best use hydrogen in our infrastructure to lower our emissions. 

P&GJ:  Since the initial shutdown of the pandemic, there has been a rise or growing urgency impact of the environmental activism against any kind of fossil fuels at all, which of course was already building steam. But how do you view the progress? How do you think the public is? How are they viewing this, and do they have realistic expectations on the pace of this change?  

Greene: I think this is an important question. I know you probably know this, but I think it’s important to get context around this. Today, nearly 180 million Americans and 5.5 million businesses use natural gas. The natural gas industry – and that’s geologic gas as well as the infrastructure that transports it – is inextricably woven into American life and our economy. But I am concerned that some people may not quite understand the significant role that natural gas truly plays in our economy. And, therefore, I want to make sure that we’re better able to communicate the critical role that affordable and reliable natural gas plays in the communities that we serve throughout the nation.  

This critical role is something that we take very seriously, and we work in partnership with our regulatory bodies to ensure the safe delivery of clean, reliable and affordable energy. We’re all-in on doing everything that we can to lower our emissions and meet aggressive targets. But there does seem to be a belief among some people that the words ‘climate’ and ‘natural gas’ are incompatible, so we need to communicate better on this point. The truth is that we have to find pathways to a cleaner future, and AGA has just released a very important study that clearly shows clean pathways using natural gas and its infrastructure to get to net-zero targets.  

P&GJ:  Clearly, some companies such as Southern Company Gas and others have voluntarily moved ahead of regulations. What is the government getting right when it comes to regulation and energy policy, and where is improvement needed?  

Greene: I’m seeing some really positive movement in some of our states. As an industry, we are working collaboratively in something like 33 states with our commissions to create renewable natural gas structures – regulatory structures that are allowing the natural gas utilities to purchase RNG, safely inject it into our system and lower our emissions. That’s very positive. I’m also seeing in some 20 states now the passing of legislation to ensure fuel choice for energy customers. I think that’s very positive.  

I am concerned about policies that seem to discount the ability to use natural gas in the future and develop the infrastructure to transport it. We are doing a lot as an industry around energy efficiency programs, but I’d like to see even more energy efficiency programs – more funding or incentives for homeowners to use higher-efficiency natural gas appliances as well as higher-efficiency electric appliances. 

P&GJ:  How concerned are you by the trend toward natural gas bans in new construction in places like New York City and some California cities? 

Greene:  I am very concerned. Natural gas bans are expensive and impractical. They can also have adverse effects on the environment if those who lack access to gas continue to rely on or switch to more carbon-intensive energy sources. And I am hearing about many examples where that is the case.  

P&GJ: What are some of the main challenges facing the natural gas industry now, and how is AGA responding? 

Greene: I would start by pointing out the three pillars that are guiding AGA’s actions, which we call the three P’s: “Protect the people,” “Preserve the planet” and “Picture the potential.” And let me just say that I think there’s a fourth P, which is not official, but I believe is also guiding us, and that is “Participate in the process.”  

With “Protect the people,” we are leveraging technology and evolving best practices to ensure that our workforce and our communities are safer every day. That is a huge focus of this industry. We spend more than $90 million a day in ensuring that our pipeline infrastructure and industry operations are safe. We’ve spoken a lot about the importance of a net-zero target and the ability of natural gas to provide us affordable, practical, quicker results in meeting those targets, and all this falls under “Preserve the planet.” Reducing emissions is a commitment that we have all made.  

And we believe that natural gas is foundational to America’s clean energy future. So, the third P – “Picturing the potential” – is about reimagining this industry for the future, continuing to innovate, cultivating the workforce and exceeding our customers’ expectations.  

Finally, my unofficial “Participating in the process” means that we are going to continue to advocate and educate the value of this infrastructure which has been fueling this economy for over 150 years, which has changed as the country has changed, and which will continue to change in a way that meets our customers’ needs, allowing us to balance clean, safe, reliable, affordable and resilient energy for our customers.  

P&GJ: Finally, how you think the federal infrastructure bill may benefit natural gas pipelines and related infrastructure? 

Greene: The bipartisan infrastructure bill creates new programs for deploying low-carbon energy solutions and a pipeline and storage infrastructure that delivers those solutions. It includes programs to advance transportation and storage of hydrogen, as well as the continued development of carbon capture and deployment of systems. So, we are encouraged by the recent progress in moving this forward.  

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