Fractivists act as if natural gas and renewables are natural enemies – they’re not. They need each other, a fact often obscured by political correctness.
It’s long been proposed by climate scientists worldwide and several US environmentalists that natural gas and renewables are natural partners. Yet, the accepted wisdom, is the complete opposite. Attempts to point it out have been met with various levels of scorn or derision by anti fracking advocates. The few who have proposed the idea have been mocked and ridiculed as greenwashers by many groups who themselves are strong advocates of renewables. It’s an unfortunate meme that is long past its sell by date.
Let’s be clear: natural gas is not perfect. But it’s not perfectly evil either. It is a fossil fuel, yet one demonstrably far lower in carbon than either coal or oil, despite the methane controversy. The methane dispute has been addressed by multiple studies, most recently by the UK Committee on Climate Change, and that particular “controversy” has been found to be broadly untrue.
Replacing coal with natural gas has verifiable benefits for lower carbon emissions, along with literally transparent benefits for air quality and thus human health. Not as widely known are similar benefits using natural gas to replace both diesel or heavy fuel oil in generation and in natural gas trucking, transportation and marine uses.
Now a new study shows there is another side to the gas story: Could gas not impede, but actually accelerate the transition to a low carbon world? Can gas not only complement renewables, but help them gain momentum?
That is a bridge too far for some advocates of renewables. It’s time for renewables and gas to be, at the very least, frenemies. Natural gas has never been anywhere near as antagonistic to solar or wind as some of their advocates have been to natural gas. That may stem from an insecurity over the economic case for renewables, which in turn also comes from an outdated view of their costs, not that of natural gas.
The three pivotal events in energy this century not only included the shale revolution, but also the parallel transformation in renewable economics. Both trends live side by side with the further good news of the sea change in carbon intensity as the world uses less energy in developed economies and lowers the slope of carbon growth elsewhere. The synthesis of the trends is undoubtedly good news – unless the business model, as it too often has been in the environmental movement, is based on using bad news as the call to action.
A story this week in the Washington Post, is headlined “Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas.”
We’re at a time of deeply ambitious plans for clean energy growth. Two of the U.S.’s largest states by population, California and New York, have both mandated that power companies get fully 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2030.
Only, there’s a problem: Because of the particular nature of clean energy sources like solar and wind, you can’t simply add them to the grid in large volumes and think that’s the end of the story. Rather, because these sources of electricity generation are “intermittent” — solar fluctuates with weather and the daily cycle, wind fluctuates with the wind — there has to be some means of continuing to provide electricity even when they go dark. And the more renewables you have, the bigger this problem can be.
Now, a new study suggests that at least so far, solving that problem has ironically involved more fossil fuels — and more particularly, installing a large number of fast-ramping natural gas plants, which can fill in quickly whenever renewable generation slips.
The new research, published recently as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was conducted by Elena Verdolini of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Milan, Italy, along with colleagues from Syracuse University and the French Economic Observatory.
This is a multi year, multi country study by economists with impeccable credentials. I shelled out $5 to learn more and found this (emphasis added):
The diffusion of renewable energy in the power system implies high supply variability. Lacking economically viable storage options, renewable energy integration has so far been possible thanks to the presence of fast-reacting mid-merit fossil-based technologies, which act as back-up capacity. This paper discusses the role of fossil-based power generation technologies in supporting renewable energy investments. We study the deployment of these two technologies conditional on all other drivers in 26 OECD countries between 1990 and 2013. We show that a 1% percent increase in the share of fast-reacting fossil generation capacity is associated with a 0.88% percent increase in renewable in the long run.
That’s right. Inserting wind and renewables in the energy system depends on building more gas power into the system. The entire rationale behind opposing “controversial” fracking rests on the premise there is a binary choice between natural gas or renewables. We see that reasoning on display not only among the tiny number of fractivist demonstrators, but more importantly, in the photographs media often use to illustrate any “controversial” stories:
Yet, this study shows that to encourage renewables, natural gas is one of the best tools going. The inverse conclusion, unconventional or controversial as it may be, is that promoting renewables alone as a solution may well be counter productive and prevents their take-up.
The industry in general, or me in particular has been saying for years that if you hate gas, you get not green, but black, or in the case of Germany, dark brown, coal. Back to the NBER report:
The widespread diffusion of cleaner technologies in the energy sector is currently hindered for three main reasons.
First, renewable technologies recently witnessed dramatic decreases in costs, but they are not yet fully cost-competitive with fossil-based power generation, except in favorable geographical locations.
Second, the energy sector is sticky and a change in the paradigm of electricity production faces multiple challenges: the need to upgrade infrastructure (i.e. the electricity grid) and the considerable sunk costs in existing, less efficient power plants.
Third, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which today are the most cost-competitive options, are intermittent and non-dispatchable. Increasing the penetration of these energy sources in the system is particularly challenging given the current lack of cheap large-scale storage technologies. Indeed, this last issue may prove the most crucial, as it would challenge the deployment of renewables even if these were cost competitive and old fossil-based capital vintages were close to the end of lifetime.
The report is readable enough at the start and quickly descends into arcane statistical formulas, but the foot notes are especially interesting:
Wind turbines produce most electricity in the early hours of the day and at night and cannot cover daytime peak demand; wind speeds vary significantly from day to day but also between seasons. Solar power plants output is strongly affected by cloud coverage and varies between seasons. Hence, it can cover daytime peak load, but not the residential sector nighttime peak load demand. Both these renewable energy options require a significant amount of backup capacity.
Unlike steam turbines, which require a period of 1-1.5 hours for heating after start up, cold gas turbines heat within 6 to15 minutes following the start-up. The most attractive option is to use the most efficient types of gas-fired plants as back-up capacity. These consist of co-generation gas-fired plants, which use gas to produce both electricity and heat for additional applications. Co-generation is an attractive option since back-up capacity is used below peak and often at low levels of capacity
The gas industry can now update it’s claim to the hate gas, get coal postulation. Hate gas, impede green. Or even better. Love renewables? Embrace gas, at least for now.
Editor’s Note: I completely agree with Nick. When we challenge renewables here it is always from the perspective of showing these energy sources aren’t any more perfect than natural gas or challenging the outrageous subsidies to crony boondoggle projects such as the SolarCity plant and the Ivanpah facility. Like Nick, we see a great future for renewables if the industry’s advocates but recognize the reality; natural gas and renewables are complements, not competitors.