March 2020, Vol. 247, No. 3


SGA Chair Don Raikes Sees Natural Gas as Key to Sustainable Future

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor  


Don Raikes didn’t enter Fairmont University with plans for a career in energy, but a two-year internship at the U.S. Department of Energy set the course for his first job at Consolidated Natural Gas, which was later acquired by Dominion Energy.

A native of Fairmont, W.Va., Raikes grew up in coal country, but he continues to play a key role in the shift to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable methane gas, both of which he views as essential, long-term companions to wind and solar energy.

Since 1985, Raikes has primarily focused on the company’s interstate gas pipeline business. He was part of the commercial team that implemented wholesale restructuring and led the commercial team that reactivated the Cove Point LNG terminal and negotiated the Cove Point export agreements.

He was vice president of Transmission Marketing & Business Development and then of Pipeline Customer Service & Business Development until being named senior vice president of Dominion’s Midstream Operations in 2017. He was senior vice president of Gas Transmission Operations from February 2019 until being named president of Gas Distribution for Dominion’s Gas Infrastructure Group in October.


P&GJ: What led you to become so deeply involved in the Southern Gas Association?

Raikes: Dominion Energy was part of the Southern Gas Association leadership, and I was invited to my first SGA meeting by one of our executives many years ago. I still remember that meeting. I was immediately struck by what an amazingly diverse group it was, with pipelines and utilities and service providers. It was such a friendly and open group of professionals.  I felt at home immediately. SGA provides great opportunities to meet with industry peers in a safe environment, share ideas and build important relationships that can help you in your career going forward. 

And, of course, my colleagues and I have all benefited over the years from SGA training programs. SGA has a long history of working closely with member companies to provide high-quality training programs that are very important to our industry. It is a fundamental part of our organization and something that differentiates us from others that are primarily advocacy-focused in nature.

P&GJ: Your theme for the year as SGA (Chair) is “Natural Gas: The key to a sustainable future.” Why did you make this your focus and what do you hope to accomplish?

Raikes: Because it expresses what I believe to be the key message our industry should be delivering to the public in order to bolster support for natural gas as an essential piece of sustainable energy in the future. Natural gas is not the enemy of a sustainable future; it is the key to a sustainable future. Why? Because it is reliable. It is essential. And it is innovative.

Let’s start with why reliability is so crucial. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine, but natural gas provides the key reliability that renewables just cannot offer, because it’s always at the ready. The best backups to intermittent sources are quick-start, natural gas-fired combustion turbines. 

In the instance of a wide outage like London experienced last August, even though they had robust battery storage, their natural gas peaking plants were essential to restoring power to hundreds of thousands of homes as well as vital infrastructure. Without natural gas, these events can quickly scale from an inconvenient hardship to a national crisis.

That’s why we talk about natural gas being essential to a sustainable future. We hear a lot about efforts to improve storage of wind and solar energy, but right now, battery technology cannot help us enough to make renewables reliable. Today in the United States, the total battery storage of renewables is about equal to an hour of a single nuclear power plant’s output. Renewables account for less than 20 percent of electric power generation. Filling that last 80 percent entirely with renewables isn’t feasible in the foreseeable future, even if the battery storage problem was solved. Renewables simply can’t stand alone without that essential partner of natural gas.

And natural gas brings a lot of innovation to that partnership. Our industry is turning agricultural waste into energy to power entire communities. We are producing LNG from domestic natural gas for delivery anywhere in the world, enabling countries to move away from coal or oil to clean-burning natural gas. Innovation is making our industry safer and more efficient.

The facts are on our side, because the reality is: We are the key to a sustainable energy future for our nation. Nothing is more reliable, essential and innovative than natural gas today. These are the advantages we are going to leverage, and they are the messages we need to deliver. Everyone in our industry needs to be an ambassador for natural gas, because we are going to be challenged at every turn, and facts are our best ammunition.


P&GJ: The opposition to natural gas is growing and more organized than ever. How can the industry respond to this?

Raikes: I’m reminded of my favorite quote, which I saw inscribed in the VA War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. It’s attributed to Lt. Chesty Puller, the most decorated Marine in history. He said, “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us… they can’t get away this time!”

That’s the attitude we must have. Although the natural gas industry is critical to both the environment and the economy, and because of this great success, we are faced with a well-funded, sophisticated opponent that is very good at messaging. We have become the primary target of many in the environmental community. They want to kill our ability to expand, make our product uneconomical – basically, they do not want us to exist. 

The good news is, as I said, that the facts are with us. It is a fact that natural gas is a critical component of the U.S. economy, and it is a fact that the rise of natural gas has brought significant benefits to the environment. It’s also a fact that renewables cannot independently meet the energy demands in the United States. Again, these are the messages we all need to share as ambassadors for natural gas.

As an industry, we need to tell our story to the “middle 50,” as I call them, because there is about 25% of the population that is never going to support us, no matter what facts we present. And, there is another 25% who already recognize the benefits of natural gas and are generally in favor of it. But, it’s that middle 50 we need to reach and educate with the facts about natural gas and its critical role in the future of American energy. 


P&GJ: Where do you find that “middle 50,” and what do you tell them?

Raikes: We know that many of them are middle-aged, suburban, working professionals, and many are already natural gas customers. They appreciate the benefits and convenience of natural gas in their daily lives, but they also want to see more renewables, and they’re hearing that electrification is good for the environment. They believe in climate change and they’re concerned about it, but they don’t want to radically overhaul our economy and their way of life.

We need to tell them about the need for gas infrastructure, remind them of our industry’s contribution to the economy and the environment. Not only are we helping to reduce electric sector carbon emissions, we are voluntarily reducing methane emissions in our gas infrastructure.

Where do we find them? Everywhere. From our places of worship to little league ballparks, or even the checkout aisle. When we are challenged, we should all be ready with the tools to diplomatically get the facts out. This is the goal of SGA’s Natural Gas Champions course, and it’s why I’m asking each of our member companies to make a commitment this year to train a percentage of their workforce. 


P&GJ: Over the course of your career, environmentalists have shifted from supporting natural gas to attacking it. How do you get a positive message out in an era when activists demonize all fossil fuels equally? 

Raikes: It’s ironic that many of the same environmental groups that so adamantly oppose natural gas today were singing its praises only a decade ago. They viewed natural gas as a bridge to fuel a renewable future, and they were standing up in support of natural gas in order to kill coal. Now that we’ve all but replaced coal, they’ve set their sights on natural gas.

The good news is that the facts are with us. It’s a fact that natural gas has brought significant benefits both environmentally and economically, and it’s a fact that renewables can’t independently supply all our nation’s energy demands.


P&GJ: Considering the current limitations of less-than-full-time availability and storage from solar and wind sources, do you believe they are an important part of the energy mix?

Raikes: Absolutely. At Dominion, we have a big renewable portfolio that includes the fourth-largest solar provider in the United States, and we’re in the process of spending $8 billion on the largest offshore wind installation in the nation. We’ve also announced a partnership with Smithfield last year where we’re committing about $1 billion to harness renewable natural gas in the future. Those operations will actually have a negative carbon footprint because they will take methane out of the air that is going directly into the environment right now.


P&GJ: What is your outlook for the industry over the next few years?

Raikes: I think the outlook is very good. But I’m not going to say it will be easy, which reminds me of my second favorite quote from a leader and mentor – who also happens to have been my father – who was an executive for the Boy Scouts of America, raising new troops and promoting the organization. He said, “When it’s too tough for everyone else, it’s just right for me.” 

We have to be more effective in messaging. We need to fight to tell our story. We will be challenged like never before during this election year, and it is incumbent on us to get the real facts out. As the premiere training and organizational development resource for our industry, I believe SGA will be a crucial tool to accomplish that objective.  


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