Heritage Gas distributes natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in Nova Scotia. At first glance, you may think that type of business doesn’t present many opportunities for innovation, but Heritage Gas is bubbling with ideas – and that creativity was put to the test earlier in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Managing through unprecedented times
Like most businesses, Heritage Gas had to quickly pivot to keep workers safe during the pandemic while ensuring reliable natural gas supply, including to large commercial customers such as hospitals. The company had to quickly design and implement new processes and protocols to manage field operations during lockdown.
“Before the pandemic, we operated with a field crew of five to handle everything from new service installations to maintenance, adjustments, decommissioning and emergency responses,” says crew supervisor Ryan Boudreau, adding that new construction and installations were (and remain) the largest part of field operations for Heritage Gas. “COVID threw everyone into second gear — things came to a halt, but construction was declared an essential service in Nova Scotia. Then we had to figure out how to continue work while following health and safety directives.”
Solutions included creating two crews of two workers each, plus one person dedicated to warehouse duties such as receiving supplies and coordinating deliveries to job sites. Changes to some practices were required to keep workers at a safe distance from each other, such as using electrofusion to connect sections of pipe — a process that can be completed by one person, instead of the previous standard practice that required two workers in close proximity.
“I personally wasn’t nervous about working during the lockdown period, because we are mainly outdoors so it was fairly easy to adhere to public health guidelines,” Ryan says. “We paused all non-essential work and I was able to mobilize from home, and to balance schedules so we were the only crew on site.”
He continues, “It felt very strange to be working in what seemed to be a city with no people or traffic. We had to be resourceful and think creatively to work out new protocols and processes, but it’s turned out well. In the end there was little disruption to our field operations. As restrictions ease, I’ve retained the two-crew system and we’re actually completing more work than with a single larger crew. This could become our new normal.”
Poised for innovation
Among the hallmarks of Canada’s natural gas and oil industry is a commitment to forward-thinking, solutions-based innovation and advanced technologies. Heritage Gas is no exception.
In many places across Canada, natural gas is a primary energy source — for power generation to keep the lights on, and as a fuel for cooking and keeping homes and buildings warm. In Nova Scotia, many customers are switching from fuel oil to natural gas for household and commercial heating needs. In addition to being reliable, safe and affordable, natural gas is the province’s cleanest energy source, so moving away from other fuel sources contributes to emissions reduction. That helps to meet today’s objectives, but looking ahead Heritage Gas is also focused on opportunities to source and distribute new fuels with lower or virtually no emissions.
“Through our long-term strategy called Forward Energy, we’re looking to greener energy sources but not necessarily wind and solar,” explains Derek Estabrook, VP, business development. “Our vision includes hydrogen, which is up to 90 per cent cleaner than natural gas. We’re also looking into renewable natural gas.”
New Fuels for a Cleaner Future
Regardless of how it’s derived, hydrogen can be used in the same way as natural gas for heating, cooking and industrial uses. Hydrogen can be blended with natural gas to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the gas network. Modern natural gas distribution systems, like the one Heritage Gas operates, can accommodate up to 20 per cent hydrogen in the natural gas stream without the need to upgrade network infrastructure or end-user equipment (i.e. furnaces, water heaters, or fireplaces).
Another focus area for Heritage Gas is renewable natural gas (or RNG), that is produced from organic sources such as landfills or biogas facilities. Derek says, “This is natural gas – it’s simply methane that’s produced by capturing and upgrading biogas rather than the usual fossil fuel natural gas production methods. Therefore, renewable gas doesn’t require any specialized pipes or equipment. However, the challenge is finding sources large enough to supply renewable gas at required volumes, close to distribution systems and end users.”
Realizing this vision for new, low-carbon energy sources will mean collaboration across industries and among companies and stakeholders, including governments. “It will mean a different kind of regulation to create an interconnected energy system, as opposed to today’s regulation that focuses on individual industries and energy sources such as natural gas, electricity, biofuels and so on,” he says. “We’re in the early stages of creating the regulatory and policy changes that would manage energy systems instead of individual sectors or industries.”
Do these future energy sources spell the end for natural gas produced by traditional means? Not at all. Derek notes, “We are in the business of delivering energy and will continue to deliver the benefits of natural gas as a resource for the foreseeable future. There is much to be discovered about hydrogen, and we look forward to seeing what a cleaner future journey looks like for the natural gas industry as a whole.”
“It’s an exciting time to be in the energy industry,” he says. “With federal and provincial objectives aimed at reducing carbon emissions, utilities have an important role to play to create new energy systems, innovations and technologies.”