Natural Gas: A Runaway Train or a Helping Hand?

, president | March 23, 2015, 9:25 am EDT
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The United States stands at an energy crossroads. Coal-fired power plants generated about half of our electricity as recently as 2007, but are now being retired at a record rate due to age, cost, and the need to cut carbon pollution. Aging nuclear power plants, which generate about twenty percent of our electricity, are also heading towards retirement, and few new plants are being built.

What will replace them? There are two paths forward.

Two paths, different outcomes

One path moves towards a clean energy future of highly energy-efficient buildings and machines; a growth of renewable energy sources coupled with energy storage that can help meet load demand; vehicles powered by alternative fuels; and distributed power generation with a sophisticated smart grid that allows users to buy and sell electricity into the grid at opportune times. Along this path, natural gas use rises in the short term, after which it begins to taper off.

Along a second path—tempting to many power producers today—coal plants (and retiring nuclear power plants) are largely replaced with power plants that run on natural gas while efficiency and renewables continue to grow, but play a smaller, more supporting role.

Which path is better? A new UCS study entitled “The Natural Gas Gamble” confirms that, from both an economic and environmental perspective, we should head towards the clean energy future. Natural gas can contribute to that future in a limited, more balanced way, but it can also become a runaway train headed in a different direction if we are not careful.

Volatile prices and too much carbon

Natural gas prices are low right now but, like all fossil fuels, prices are volatile and likely to rise, especially if the United States starts exporting large quantities to a gas-deprived world as expected. The more dependent we become on natural gas, the more our economy will reel from price shocks such as the one that hit New England last winter during the “polar vortex” when gas prices shot up by ten to twelve times above average, saddling New England electric customers with electricity rate hikes of thirty percent.

A good way to hedge against this price volatility is to invest in renewable sources such as solar and wind that are highly predictable and can help lower the price of natural gas by reducing the demand for it. This strategy also guards against the possibility that high natural gas prices cause a temporary resurgence of coal burning.

And while natural gas-fired plants do cause less carbon pollution than coal (about half the carbon emissions), they are still large emitters; the natural gas extraction and distribution industry is the largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than CO2. A careful look at our long-term carbon budget makes it abundantly clear that we can’t reach the level of reductions we need (80 percent reduction by 2050) with a strategy that relies primarily on fuel switching from coal to gas.

The truth is, wholesale switching from coal to gas actually threatens to impede progress to a clean energy future. That’s because natural gas plants have a useful life of 30 or more years, and pipelines last 50-100 years. So, a massive build-out of new plants and new pipelines will either lock us in to a largely natural gas future, or create “stranded assets” that will make it harder to cost-effectively reduce our emissions later. And because our pool of energy investment dollars is limited, today’s investment in natural gas capacity crowds out investment in new transmission lines, energy storage, and smart grids—all of which are needed to make the clean energy future work.

A smarter role for natural gas

So how do we make sure natural gas supports, rather than impedes,that clean energy future?

The key is re-thinking its role. Rather than seeing it as an economic and global warming panacea (which it is not), natural gas can be a facilitator of clean energy.

Natural gas has at least three important roles to play: First, in the short run, existing gas plants can ramp up further to displace coal and achieve low cost, significant emission reductions. Second, new plants and pipelines can be built strategically in places where they are needed to provide back-up capacity to renewable sources, taking advantage of the fact that highly efficient gas plants can start up and shut down very quickly to complement variable solar and wind powered energy. Third, low natural gas prices (and hence electric prices), provide an “energy dividend” that makes it easier to invest in a clean energy future. In New England, for example, before last winter’s price spike, an average residential consumer’s electric bills dropped by about twenty dollars per month between 2008 and 2012, largely because of a drop in natural gas prices. This enabled states such as Massachusetts to make significant investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, paid for largely through small charges in utility bills that were easily tolerated by consumers because of the larger price drop.

How do we make sure natural gas plays this more limited role? The ideal way is to institute carbon pricing that removes the subsidy currently given to natural gas producers that allows them to emit heat-trapping gases for free. The next best option is for the EPA is to lower carbon and methane through regulation. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a step in the right direction but it needs to be strengthened to encourage states to make additional investments in renewable energy and efficiency rather than relying on natural gas to meet their carbon reduction targets. Similarly, EPA has now issued a welcome proposal to limit methane emissions from natural gas wells, but this regulation needs to be amended to govern existing gas wells, not just new ones. Finally, states can help by maintaining and boosting the target levels of energy efficiency and renewable energy portfolio standards, both of which have delivered cost-effective reductions across the country.

Thinking ahead about the best ways to meet future energy needs means finding a smarter role for natural gas.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming

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  • trees2296

    The issue is not framed correctly. Everyone talks about the cost of power. But, you are not only buying power, you are buying all the side effects as well. Every time you burn a gallon of gasoline, you set in process the heat generation of a gallon of gas burnt every year for at least 10,000 years. When you buy renewable energy, you don’t get that side effect. Coal is worse than gasoline, and natural gas is better, but either way, the side effect of fossil fuels is absolutely enormous.

  • Richard Mann

    Here is an academic reference describing the problem with intermittent, unreliable power from Wind Turbines.

    The claim is that Turbines will not be effective until we have efficient cost-effective energy storage.

    “Wind turbines as yet unsuitable as electricity providers”. C. le Pair, F. Udo and K. de GrootEurophysics News, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2012, pp. 22-25
    Archived here: https://www.wind-watch.org/documents/wind-turbines-as-yet-unsuitable-as-electricity-providers/

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for an interesting and worthwhile analysis. I plan to send a link to this to my Senators and Representative in the House along with some encouragement that they pursue carbon pricing and the suggestions with the EPA. I hope other UCS members who agree will do likewise.

  • JRT256

    Analysed more closely, your arguments are really arguments for Enhanced Geothermal Power and Next Generation Nuclear power. Bother of these can replace coal without the need for any backup from natural gas or major changes in the electric grid.

  • Richard Mann

    News from Ontario, Canada.

    The irony of this is that Ontario for all its money spent on subsidies for renewable energy, is not even reducing C02 emissions. We have been sold a bill of goods by our government, and by the environmental movement in general. Neither wants to admit that this scheme has been a huge failure.

    OSPE (Ontario Society of Professional Engineers) have written a number of reports that show the difficulty integrating intermittent wind energy into the electrical grid. For details look at the document “Engineering Expertise Vital to Success of Ontario’s Electricity System: OSPE”, Jan 16, 2013.

    Engineers’ reports are significant because they are legally bound to report success (or failure) of their projects. Reading the reports you’ll see what we have suspected all along. Engineers must follow government mandate (move to Green energy), but they cannot show a reduction in C02.

    • Richard Mann

      What is the problem with wind?

      1.Inefficient.
      A turbine only outputs a fraction of power rating, called “capacity factor”, typically ~30%. All the rest (70%) comes from fossil fuels, in Ontario this is
      Natural Gas. These are the dozen or so natural gas generators, all around southern Ontario.

      2. Out of sync with demand.
      Wind blows at night, and in shoulder seasons of spring and fall. It is out of
      sync with peak demand during the day, especially summer afternoons when
      AC demand spikes.

      Right now it is very windy and we’re exporting tons of Wind energy (at a loss) to USA. We’re also spilling hydro, and dumping heat (steam) from Nuclear. As a last resort, we’re turning off wind turbines (but still paying them not to produce).

      OK, people still say, “well, we still use less gas, right?”.

      The problem is Natural Gas generators work much less efficiently when “firming” the variable load of Wind turbines. Wind can stop and start at any moment, so the gas plants have to ramp up and down very quickly to follow the wind variation.

      Think of a gas plant as a car or truck. It works pretty efficiently in highway traffic. But when you add an intermittent source like wind turbines you’re getting “city driving” and “traffic congestion” and the gas plants operate much less efficiently, and output more C02. Any C02 reduction from the turbines is lost to inefficiencies of the system.

      • trees2296

        Last year, China installed as much wind power as the US has nuclear power. Texas is installing lots of wind power. What a problem for all those deniers rooting for fossil fuels.

      • Richard Mann

        Texas wind energy. Problems reported.

        September 23, 2014
        Comptroller Susan Combs Releases Energy Report; Says Electricity Policy Should Focus on Reliability, Affordability

        (AUSTIN) — With booming economic and population growth fueling a growing demand for electricity, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs today released a report urging policymakers and elected officials to discontinue costly subsidies and tax breaks driving development of new electricity generation and allow a more market-driven approach to providing reliable power to millions of Texas consumers when they need it most.

        http://www.window.state.tx.us/news2014/140923-electricityrpt.html

      • Vulcanator

        Based on your post you would think that power companies never, ever have to deal with any kind of variability. What do you think the are forced to do when a day starts out hot but cools down because thunderstorms start popping and the clouds roll in. Then the clouds dissipate and demand increases again with the return of the sun. Any green energy future is going to involve a variety of energy sources. Proponents will not deny this. Want to address peak load issues on a hot sunny day when the wind ain’t blowing? Make sure you have solar panels on every flat sun facing surface in a city. There is no excuse in this day and age for not capitalizing on free energy if you can capture it. And it can be captured throughout much of the year from Alaska, to the Florida Keys. The same with wind. Throw in nuclear, hydro, hydrogen, geothermal, and natural gas as baseload, and get smarter with the grid and the red herrings fossil fuel addicts love to throw out can all be dealt with.

        One way or other we have to move beyond finite energy sources, or our highly advanced, overpopulated society will eventually crumble into dust.

      • Richard Mann

        Wind proponents have never shown a “cost benefit analysis”. How much C02 is reduced for the extra $ spent in subsidies.

        Did anyone watch TV Ontario, “The Agenda” with Steven Paikin this week (Wed March 25th, 8pm) Wind proponents had a very difficult time explaining why Wind Energy, now providing less than 5% of the Grid in Ontario, is still worth pursuing. There was an economics professor (McKitrick, from Guelph) who gave clear evidence of the economic failure of “Green Energy”. Comments?

        http://tvo.org/video/211902/wind-power-wind-problems

      • Vulcanator

        Richard, it was estimated awhile back that nearly $10 trillion has been spent in the Middle East largely to defend the oil patch there. And that is just what the US has spent. Lets compare that to the relatively tiny amount spent on wind. I am all for cost benefit analysis, a real one, that includes all the externalized costs that conservative have pretended don’t exist with fossil fuels.

        But regardless at the end of the day there are two irrefutable things. Wind doesn’t produce any CO2, so for any CO2 laden energy source it replaces there is a drop. Second, the wind has blown for billions of years, and it will continue to blow for another billion. But once we use up fossil fuels there will be no more.

  • Richard Mann

    To interested readers here is a “time line” showing the history of Wind Turbine Noise research, going back as far as 1979. Each entry provides documentation:
    cdn DOT knightlab DOT com/libs/timeline/latest/embed/index.html?source=0Ak2bgr7C0nhPdGR3S1lEekU3T3p4ZDhUNDdRV2Y2ZkE&font=Bevan-PotanoSans&maptype=toner&lang=en&height=650

    1979 “First complaints received from a dozen families within a 3km radius of turbine”.
    1981 “Wind turbine operation creates enormous sound pressure waves”
    1982 “Closed windows and doors do not protect occupants from LFN”
    1982 “NASA research on human impacts provided to wind industry”
    1985 “Hypothesis for infrasound-induced motion sickness”
    1987 “Wind industry told that dB(A) unsuitable to measure LFN emissions from wind turbines”

    2004 “Wind industry knows noise models inadequate” (from Vestas)

    2011 “Vestas knew that low frequency noise from larger turbines needed greater setbacks”

  • Talking about equations regarding climate change … http://math.350.org

    “It’s simple math: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times the safe amount.

    Fossil fuel companies are planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them. In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis. The Do the Math Tour was a massive success, with sold out shows in every corner of the country.”

    • JRT256

      Yes, we must replace coal with nuclear power as quickly as reasonably possible.

      • Partially agreed, adding more nuclear power plants is a great idea, but nuclear isn’t the only option. Wind, solar, hydroelectric ~ all should be thoroughly explored and fully subsidized. My only problem with uranium nuclear, as they are now, is that they use radioactive pressurized water as coolant ~ a recipe for disaster. Thorium molten salt reactors will be a particularly useful technology, and much safer, and thorium is at least ten times more plentiful than uranium. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2vzotsvvkw + https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HL1BEC024g

  • `A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.` / `There isn’t a position on this any more than there is a position on the temperature at which water boils.` / `Mass migrations, food and water shortages, spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires – way too many to keep under control, storms that have the power to level cities` … the show may be fictional, but the data behind this analysis is all too real … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NpdLwHMeQ0 + http://climate.nasa.gov/400ppmquotes + http://math.350.org

  • Regardless of your environmental views, going solar is a great investment. Rather than looking at a solar panel system as an expense, look at it as a financial product. Over its 25+ year life span, a solar panel system can generate tens of thousands of dollars in savings with annual returns ranging from 10% to over 30%. Learn more from EnergySage about how solar can act as a financial investment and earn you great returns – http://bit.ly/1bFzq8b

    • JRT256

      However, much of that “savings” comes form subsidies which will not continue as more people install rooftop solar for their homes.

      • Vulcanator

        The price of solar has drop 75% in the last 4 years. And that pace continues. Do you think you pay the true cost of oil, and natural gas? From the health costs, the environmental costs, and the warfare costs to keep the fossil fuel industry moving? No we don’t. We never have. Its all been subsidized…and it continues to be.