Electricity use is down and more power is coming from renewable sources, but Minneapolis has a stubborn foe as it strives to curb greenhouse gases and fight climate change: natural gas.

Citywide consumption of natural gas rose last year, staff found, and it is now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

"They're going in the wrong direction," Luke Hollenkamp, the city's sustainability program coordinator, said during a report to the City Council environment committee Monday. "At the current trajectory … we will not achieve our 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal."

The increase is due to a growing demand for building heating, primarily in the industrial and commercial sector, Hollenkamp said. New buildings cropping up across the city continue to be heated by natural gas, he said, and older buildings are not properly equipped to save energy during the colder months.

Finding a solution to the problem isn't easy, in no small part because Minnesotans need to stay warm in frigid winters. Council members said finding alternative ways to generate heat will require the help of utility companies, especially CenterPoint Energy. Meanwhile, the city is exploring ways to adjust its building codes for greater efficiency.

The city has a goal to reduce its 2006 baseline greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050.

So far, emissions are down 17% from that baseline, but they ticked up in 2018 when extreme cold led to an increase in demand for natural gas, according to the staff report.

Council Member Cam Gordon, who sits on the committee, said that "just to see the fossil fuel emissions go up at all is discouraging."

"What are we going to do about natural gas?" he asked. "We need to really step up, or we're going to see this trend, I fear, just continue."

Hollenkamp said natural gas emissions would need to be cut at least in half in order to get the city back on track toward its goals.

About 73% of all emissions are from energy used by buildings, according to the report.

Gordon and Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said they are looking at CenterPoint Energy, the city's gas utility, to move more quickly toward alternative energy sources for buildings.

"They have not given a plan for any of these options, and that has been the frustration from the city," Schroeder said.

Brad Tutunjian, vice president of gas operations for CenterPoint Energy in Minnesota, said Tuesday the company is looking at alternatives to help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A pilot program by the company to use natural gas from such renewable sources as landfills and dairy farms, was rejected by state utility regulators earlier this summer. Tutunjian said the company wants to pilot carbon-capture — a budding technology that sequesters carbon emissions produced by fossil fuels — in Minneapolis in the near future.

"It's right on the edge of starting," Tutunjian said of carbon-capture. "We're [at] about the place where the electric companies were 30 years ago regarding wind and solar technology."

Yet Minneapolis has made strides in cutting other ­emissions.

Electricity emissions have gone down 41% from 2006, according to the staff report. City officials commended utility partner Xcel Energy for using more renewable sources, such as wind and solar energy, and for setting a goal to be carbon-free by 2050.

The city has also reduced its emissions from transportation, which is the leading source of carbon emissions statewide.

Setting new standards

But changes are still needed, officials said, to improve the efficiency of the city's building stock — old and new.

Next year, people looking to sell their homes will have to conduct tests for energy efficiency, including checking insulation, heating systems and windows. However, retrofitting homes still remains too costly for some homeowners.

"We need tools that are going to make putting in insulation and making your home more comfortable, as well as helping the environment, within people's reach," Schroeder said.

Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, a senior policy associate for the clean-energy advocacy group Fresh Energy, said moving current buildings off natural gas is challenging. However, she said, the city should set standards for new development.

"New construction presents a golden opportunity to build carbon-free, to build without natural gas," she said.

Gordon and Schroeder said they want Minneapolis to adopt a similar sustainable-building policy to one in St. Paul, where private development that receives municipal funding has to follow certain energy efficiency standards.

Minneapolis needs to move away from natural gas, strengthen energy standards for new buildings and retrofit older buildings to become more energy efficient, Hollenkamp said.

"The reality is, to meet our greenhouse gas emissions goals, we have to accomplish pretty much all of those and then some," he said.