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Can natural gas be the key to lowering emissions?

Natural gas supports continued growth of renewables—and is transforming our fuel mix for the better

Last July, a brutal heat wave in California caused a spike in electricity demand, leaving more than 100,000 people without power. Then, just two weeks later, the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water warned residents to brace themselves for the possibility of future rolling blackouts. The irony was hard to miss: California has the nation’s most aggressive solar power mandates, yet the state was now faced with an energy crisis.

Keeping a power grid stable and efficient at times of peak demand is a huge challenge, particularly when the grid is supplied by intermittent power sources. While solar offers a low-emission option, it doesn’t provide 24-hour power; generation invariably dips in the late afternoon and evening, for example, even on cloudless days. Meanwhile, California’s push for solar has been accompanied by the net loss of 789 megawatts of reliable natural gas capacity that was previously available to meet peak loads.

“Relying on renewable sources that over generate or under generate inconsistently introduces inefficiencies and makes the power sector itself less effective, costlier and more at risk for disruptions.”
Wayne Winegarden, senior fellow in business and economics at the Pacific Research Institute

The state’s painful experience in managing peak electricity demand demonstrates the challenge of depending too much on renewable energy. “Relying on renewable sources that over generate or under generate inconsistently introduces inefficiencies and makes the power sector itself less effective, costlier and more at risk for disruptions,” said Wayne Winegarden, Senior Fellow in Business and Economics at the Pacific Research Institute. While battery storage has been mentioned for decades, it’s still largely unproven for residential and, further out, for commercial and industrial power needs and remains significantly more expensive than other sources of power.

So where do we turn? The answer may be in the very fuel California has been attempting to phase out—natural gas. These sources aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a compelling case to be made for natural gas as an enabler of renewables, helping solar and wind to continue on their growth path by providing a reliable, clean and relatively low-cost supply of power that ensures the grid operates reliably. One study across 26 countries found that a one percent increase in the use of natural gas coincided with a nearly equal increase in the use of renewables.

In a word, the two energy sources are symbiotic.

Making the Modern Energy Mix

Conventional wisdom argues that a move toward cleaner energy requires reducing the use of fossil fuels. As a result, there has been a massive push to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In 2017, there was $57 billion worth of new clean energy investment in the U.S., part of a global spend of $333 billion. Across the country, 12.7 percent of U.S. energy came from renewable sources in 2017, about a third more than the share reported in 2007. Hydroelectric and wind power lead the trend.

But despite this promising growth, there are barriers to transitioning more aggressively to renewables. The issue isn’t simply the amount of infrastructure; the intermittency of wind and solar generation requires natural gas to enable their use. “Renewable technologies aren’t ready for prime time. Maybe one day they will be, perhaps tomorrow or perhaps 10 years from now. We just don’t know,” said Winegarden.

“Until then we still need traditional fossil fuel power sources.”

“Renewable technologies aren’t ready for prime time. Until then we still need traditional fossil fuel power sources.”
Wayne Winegarden, senior fellow in business and economics at the Pacific Research Institute

This reality has fueled a diverse approach to modern energy development. Over the past decade, while the U.S. has built out its renewable infrastructure, it has also sought to expand production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. This process helped accelerate natural gas production to almost 30 trillion cubic feet in 2017, up from 20 trillion annually ten years earlier. According to the Energy Information Administration, on a heat-content basis, natural gas made up the largest share of energy production in 2017. That boost has transformed our power supply. These days, natural gas fired generation accounts for more than 33 percent—the number one source—of our electricity nationwide.

And though natural gas is a fossil fuel, it’s crucial to realizing a more sustainable energy mix. It burns far cleaner than coal, its main power-generation competitor, and results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide than burning coal. In fact, increased natural gas use is the main reason U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have decreased to 25-year lows. “Thanks to the rapid expansion of America's natural gas sector, electricity plants have switched from coal to gas,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

A State of Symbiosis

As renewable use grows, energy produced from natural gas continues to be a friend rather than a foe. Texas provides a good example. The state reached a major milestone at the end of 2017 when the launch of a 155-megawatt wind farm—Texas now has 21—pushed its wind power capacity above 20,000 megawatts, ahead of coal-fired power for the first time. In all, wind provided nearly 15 percent of the state's electricity in 2017.

Texas couldn’t have achieved this goal without the crucial backstop of natural gas power. Peak-load power plants typically are powered by natural gas and help balance grids by ramping up quickly when there is a surge in demand. Flexible and dependable, they’ve been essential to the expansion of renewable energy installations in Texas.

As long as renewable power generation remains intermittent, there will be a need for stations ready to run when the weather does not cooperate. That’s why sweeping government edicts in places like California that dictate closing fossil fuel plants are missing the bigger picture. Renewables are a safer bet when a fossil fuel is in place to pick up their slack—and natural gas is the most cost-effective and cleanest option available.

As the renewable revolution progresses, natural gas is an invaluable partner.


Sources:

2018 California Independent System Operator report
National Academy of Sciences
U.S. Energy Information Administration
The Washington Post
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