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June 13, 2011 – Vol.16 No.13

WILL ABUNDANT NATURAL GAS MUSCLE OUT CLEAN RENEWABLES?
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News

There are efforts here in U.S. to make better use of the abundant supply of natural gas trapped in rock formations far below the surface of the land and waters off the coastline. Proponents say it’s mostly about clean energy and energy independence, but it’s also a way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to slow the warming of the planet. When burned as fuel natural gas emits about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal.

The efforts to exploit more natural gas is not confined to the U.S., of course, they’re global. The International Energy Agency has titled a new report “Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?” that presents a scenario where the use of natural gas rises by more than 50 percent above 2010 levels and accounts for more then a quarter of global energy demand by 2025. The report laments that natural gas could muscle out the development of emission-free renewable energies and nuclear power.

The IEA has a point. What happens to renewables if there’s a significant switch to not-entirely-clean natural gas? Let’s examine.

Natural gas certainly has its advantages over popular intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar.

It’s cheap compared with those renewables. It can provide energy for both heat and power 24/7 in any weather. To some extent it is renewable in that methane gas (natural gas is mostly methane) from landfill operations or sewage treatment plants can be injected into natural gas pipelines. And there’s already an extensive natural gas infrastructure in place - pipelines, storage and connections within commercial and industrial buildings and of course homes.

Natural gas could feasibly be a direct replacement for some petroleum fuels helping with energy independence. (Energy independence is really about independence from imported oil.) Both cars and trucks of all sizes can run on it. It can be also be an indirect replacement for petroleum when used as fuel for power plants that, in turn, charge electric vehicles.

However, for passenger cars and light trucks, the automotive industry is now more interested in improving fuel efficiency of conventional vehicles and building electric and hybrid vehicles than converting them to natural gas. A bill in Congress, the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions of 2011, or NatGas Act, wants vehicle makers to do more than electric drive and proposes tax incentives for the purchase of natural gas fueled vehicles of all sizes as well as tax credits to build a fueling infrastructure.

On his own, natural gas magnate T. Boone Pickens is offering his Pickens Plan. The Plan wants natural gas to fuel large trucks and more power plants as well as build more renewables like wind and solar. Boone Pickens most likely understands the technical and safety issues involved with distributing natural gas to consumers thus his plan might make more sense than the NatGas Act.

There are drawbacks to natural gas. It’s not free of carbon emissions and even if it replaced all the coal in the world, eventually its emissions would become a problem as the world continued to grow. Still, in the short term a major switch over to natural gas in U.S. powerplants could cut the nation’s contribution to global carbon dioxide by 8 percent which is almost half the country’s unofficial 2020 emissions reduction goal, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT) “The Future of Natural Gas.”

Further, though abundant now and to a small extent renewable, natural gas like oil today, eventually go into decline. It may take many decades, well past my lifetime and probably yours, but it will happen. Energy planners as well as politicians should always plan beyond their lifetimes since it takes so long to make an energy switch.

Then there’s the safety issue. Natural gas fueling can be perfectly safe with proper instruction, care of equipment and the maintenance of vehicles. Somehow, though, I don’t think you’d want average motorists refueling with this highly-combustable, pressurized gas. One cigarette smoking passenger combined with a leaky pump would cause considerable trouble. Fueling stations would need to be built to be manned by qualified personnel, not just a cashier in a glass booth. The Pickens Plan leaves natural gas to powering large trucks. Truck drivers, more intimate with their rigs than everyday drivers with their cars, would learn the safety issues with natural gas refueling.

Finally there are major concerns about the method used to extract all this natural gas from rocks: The much talked about hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The concerns here are that methane can enter the water supply, too much water is used in the fracking process, the waste disposal of contaminated fracking fluids as well as earth tremors set off by splitting up rocks underground. The methane in water issue seems to be the primary concern and as one expect in this free speech country both the methane-is-in-water and no-it-isn’t sides are debating the issue, even in court. The issue will need to be resolved if fracking is to continue on large scale to meet natural gas dreams for the future.

Popular intermittent renewables, again wind and solar, have their problems too. Both are costly and both are not able to provide energy all the time unless energy storage is included.

On the plus side renewables, like wind and solar, have no emissions other than emissions created when the technologies were manufactured and installed. Zero emissions is far better than a 30 - 45 percent reduction for natural gas. These renewables are quick to build too. Find a sunny spot and solar can make energy in as little as a few weeks. Find a reliable breeze and turbines can capture it for energy. And, solar energy in particular is easy to deploy with little, if any resistance from the public.

So will cheap natural gas shove aside clean renewables? It will certainly pose some challenges. Cost will have to drop for renewables and energy storage will need to be the norm. But don’t expect natural gas to dominate all energy sectors. In power generation it may get a greater foothold particularly if fracking turns out to be OK environmentally. For transportation more heavy vehicles could be running on natural gas in the near future (a welcome thing), but light vehicles will continue towards greater gasoline efficiency and electric drive.

If it works out that natural gas DOES become a greater part of our energy mix then perhaps it should be made greener. One way to do this is use it as fuel for fuel cells where it isn’t combusted but chemically reacted with oxygen in air to make electricity. Solid oxide fuel cells, in particular, use natural gas directly with the high heat of the cell stacks doing the task of reforming the natural gas into hydrogen fuel and some carbon dioxide.

Bloom Energy, one of the companies selling solid oxide fuel cells, expanded manufacturing operations in California in April with 1000 new employees and is now going East and will open up another manufacturing plant in Newark, Delaware at the site of an old Chrysler plant.

Links:

The special report "Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?" can be downloaded free of charge on the World Energy Outlook website: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org

MIT Energy Initiative: The Future of Natural Gas
http://web.mit.edu/mitei/research/studies/natural-gas-2011.shtml

Bloom Energy
http://www.bloomenergy.com

 

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