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SoCalGas’ Peress Plans for the 21st Century

Jonathan Peress has come on board as SoCalGas’ senior director of Regulatory Affairs, responsible for managing regulatory matters with California’s various state agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission. He’s got a lot of work ahead of him as he advances decarbonization of the state’s gas system, with possible options ranging from fuel cell technology for clean back-up power generation to green hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel source.

“Last year we unveiled a plan for a 21st century energy system that focuses on affordable solutions to achieving the state’s climate goals,” says Maryam Brown, president of SoCalGas.  “[Now] we take the next step towards delivering on that plan by adding Jonathan to our team. He will play an instrumental role in helping SoCalGas achieve its vision to be the cleanest gas utility in North America.” 

Waste360 sat with Peress for more details on those 21st century plans and to learn what the utilities’ top priorities will be as he guides it in its work to decarbonize its gas system.

Waste360: What are your core functions in your new role as SoCalGas’ senior director of Regulatory Affairs?

Jonathan Peress: I work with a team of professionals who represent SoCalGas before regulators, particularly the California Utilities Commission (CPUC), on a variety of proceedings. Among areas that I will focus on are proceedings that address decarbonization and actions that SoCalGas will take to advance and achieve the state’s climate goals.

Waste360: I understand your last job was as senior director, Energy Markets and Utility Regulation for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). What was your role, and how does it fit in with what you are doing now? 

The EDF team I managed focused on structuring markets and market policy so energy companies and utilities—

including pipeline operators, gas distribution utilities and electric utilities—were incentivized to advance the goals of state climate laws and achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions. SoCalGas’ goal is to be the cleanest gas utility in the country. Thus, the goals from my past and present jobs are aligned.  

At EDF we understood that to achieve climate goals it is important to provide market participants with incentives to invest in approaches that reduce emissions. And we understood the critical role of capital markets, shareholders and investors, who must be willing to channel capital for infrastructure and approaches to reduce emissions. Based on my experience I know that achieving climate policy goals requires a big tent approach where all prospective tools including electrification, renewable natural gas (RNG), negative emissions technologies and fuels need to be pursued and advanced. I think I bring breadth of experience in working with sister utilities and market participants like SoCalGas. And I will rely on that experience in dealing with folks outside of SoCalGas in my current role.

Waste360: What drew you to this new opportunity?

Jonathan Peress: I would only work for a company that is proactive and thoughtful in achieving these climate emissions reduction goals, and SoCalGas is at the leading edge of utilities focused on achieving emission reduction and doing things like adding hydrogen to its feedstock and advancing RNG. So I am able, and happy, to use my experience with great colleagues at EDF to continue to advance SoCalGas’ leading-edge plans and efforts. 

Waste360: What do you believe are the greatest priorities, and the most important focus, for the utility as it works to decarbonize its gas system? 

Jonathan Peress: First, regulatory policies must provide incentives and an operational environment for utilities to pursue and develop new and innovative approaches to advance climate goals. I emphasize, again, that this compels a big tent approach around all prospective tools, including pursuing RNG, decarbonized fuels, and negative emissions technologies. And to achieve these goals, policies must facilitate investment from capital markets and shareholders. 

Strategies that seek to pick winners and losers before we have answers will diminish the willingness of investors and companies to risk capital to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, those who are pushing to electrify everything and overlook the role of natural gas infrastructure and RNG as part of the solution are missing important tools that will help achieve climate goals more quickly and cost effectively.

Waste360: How will you address the issues around decarbonizing the gas system?

Jonathan Peress: It is important to recognize that the SoCalGas system and natural gas has been, and is currently, a powerful and critical facilitator of emissions reductions, particularly as a provider of flexibility in the integrated energy system.  

As the electric system employs more renewables there will be an even greater need for different resources to ensure reliability can be maintained when the sun is not shining, and the wind is not blowing. California depends on quick responsiveness and the capabilities of the gas grid to dispatch energy to power plants so they can ramp up and down quickly to maintain a balanced energy system. SoCalGas’ role is becoming more valuable and being required increasingly to provide variable and flexible gas to the electric grid, with little or no notice. The trend of needing just in time fuel delivery for electric reliability is becoming more pronounced as more renewable power comes to market. So, it’s important for stakeholders to recognize both short- and long-term needs for the gas delivery system to achieve climate goals. I will seek to address the issues by making sure all stakeholders are aware that the gas system is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste360: What work has already occurred that you will pick up on and take further? 

Jonathan Peress: We are pursuing goals of 5 percent RNG by 2022 and 20 percent by 2030. We are in the midst of projects to meet those goals and advance other goals, such as including hydrogen in our feedstock. 

California has taken a leading role to develop infrastructure for decarbonizing fuel; with hydrogen as one example and renewable natural gas for transportation and some industrial applications as other examples. We are exploring all these options, so there is a lot of work SoCalGas is presently engaged in that I can contribute to and help advance

Others are engaging in similar work. For instance, the RNG procurement law in Oregon sets procurement targets and enables utilities to acquire and use RNG. We have examples of similar legislation pending that provides incentive, structure, and opportunities to reduce emissions from organic waste and convert waste into gas to inject in the system. But I think more can be done. And I will continue to work with SoCalGas to advance in these areas. There’s been a good starting point from a policy standpoint, but to achieve climate goals those policies need to continue to develop, improve and be adopted.

Waste360: What will be your approach as you continue to advance climate change goals and further push for decarbonization?

Jonathan Peress: Much more can be done but only if we work collectively across all stakeholders. I will work to advance policies that encourage numerous approaches to achieve climate goals, because there are no simple or linear solutions. I’m a collaborator and will seek to collaborate with stakeholders across the entire landscape. I think that fits with SoCalGas’ corporate and organizational approach–to prioritize partnering with multiple stakeholders.

Waste360: Who will you be working with and in what way?

Jonathan Peress: My SoCalGas colleagues and I will work collaboratively with each other and with market participants in both the gas and the electric sectors—as well as with our customers and other stakeholders like consumer advocates, environmental and public health advocates, and of course capital investors and technology developers. 

Waste360: What new work will you tackle first, and why is this among your most immediate priorities?

Jonathan Peress: We are focusing on efforts underway at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to explore and plan for the future of the gas system.  A priority we will pursue is to educate regulators and stakeholders about the contribution our system is making to achieve climate  goals and the contributions we will continue making into the future, because our system is the primary facilitator of flexibility as far as getting renewables to the grid.

Waste360: Why is SoCalGas pushing for statewide adoption of renewable natural gas and what does CPUC need to hear around this?

Jonathan Peress: For natural gas to play a critical role now and into the future in providing a pathway to achieve reductions there must be a focus on decarbonizing fuel. And all meaningful and credible decarbonization analyses conclude that dispatchable power generation is needed now and for the intermediate future, which will require fuel. It’s important to not just focus on deploying more renewable electric resources but also to maintain the ability of the gas grid to provide flexibility services while reducing carbon content of the gas. I think it’s important to look at policies and actions underway in Europe and Asia where gas distribution systems are viewed as part of the long-term pathway to achieve climate goals and ultimately get to net zero emissions.

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