Friday, 19 April 2013 11:52

The Transition to Renewable Energy and the Role of Natural Gas

Written by  Jessie
The Kintigh Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, in Somerset, New York. The Kintigh Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, in Somerset, New York. Source: Matthew D. Wilson (LtPowers)/CC BY-SA 2.5

Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, temporarily stalling renewable energy production.  When that happens, what fuel source fills in the energy gap?  Traditionally the answer was coal, but due to increased supply and low prices, the answer of late has been natural gas.  Coal is certainly the dirtier of the two fossil fuels, but natural gas is not a perfect choice either.  The increased supply in natural gas was achieved through the process of hydraulic fracturing (called fracking), which can be harmful to the environment.

Last spring natural gas prices fell to all-time lows of $2 to $3 per thousand cubic feet in the United States.  This spring natural gas prices are on the rise.  In fact, they’ve doubled to just over $4 per thousand cubic feet, but the bottom line is natural gas is still pretty cheap.  Experts say prices in the $4 or $5 range won’t affect the increasing use of the fuel by consumers and the energy industry since the price was $8 just a few years ago.  In Europe and Asia prices are even higher; think $10 to $14.

According to a Citibank research report, “Gas and renewables could in fact be the making of each other in the short term.”  Expect renewables to cost about the same as conventional fuels in many parts of the world “in the very near term.”  Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the price of renewable energy has declined substantially in recent years, and that’s expected to continue, making them even more competitive.  As demand for renewables builds, it will in turn “drive demand for more gas-fired” power plants to be used as backup.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) missed an April 13 deadline to issue much-anticipated new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.  Proposed a year ago, the rules were first to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new plants.  Once a limit is set for new facilities, the EPA is legally obligated to address existing plants, which pose the true climate threat at the moment.  The US’ power plant fleet is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said last week that the agency expects to propose new rules on greenhouse gases from existing plants in fiscal 2014.

The draft rule for new power plants sets a limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity.  That cutoff point would be easy for natural-gas-fired plants to meet, but not conventional coal plants.  Already, power companies build natural gas plants almost exclusively because of the low price of gas. 

There is speculation that the EPA’s indefinite delay on the new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants is due to second thoughts at the EPA and the White House over the single standard.  The EPA is said to be contemplating setting two standards, one for coal plants and the other for natural gas, which might make the new rule more legally defensible in an attempt to avert the inevitable legal wrangling that goes on whenever the EPA sets a new rule including limitations.

Environmental groups argue that separate standards make little sense.  “Setting a separate standard for coal- and natural-gas-fired plants would greatly weaken the standard’s ability to ensure a transition away from building high-carbon electricity-generation sources,” said economist Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Natural gas may be the interim answer as we build our renewable energy infrastructure and then the backup once we move to a sustainable energy future.  For the sake of slowing down climate change, the EPA needs to set the rules on new electricity generation plants posthaste.  Then they should tackle existing power plants without delay.  Global warming won’t wait.

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