Wind Versus Natural Gas: First Skirmish of the Renewable Energy Revolution?

windturbine2Natural gas is being touted as our bridge to clean power. It’s dirty, but not nearly as dirty as coal. It’s non-renewable fossil fuel, but the US produces 85% of the gas we use in this country domestically, and we have estimated reserves that could last us 75 years or more.

Well, the bridge has already been built, at least in some parts of the country, and natural gas is beginning to feel the heat. The Wall Street Journal, cribbing from a surprisingly readable report(PDF) by Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., an investment bank, suggests that 100% renewable wind power is already muscling out natural gas as a provider of electrical generation in Texas.

Texas currently has about 8,000 Mw of installed wind generation, and another 10,500 Mw should be installed by 2013, according to Tudor Pickering. Since much of that electricity is generated when the state would otherwise be using gas turbines, the two sources are direct competition, and wind is winning.

The Power/Price Ladder

Generally speaking, electric utilities generate power from the cheapest sources first (coal, foremost), and then, as demand rises during the day and in summer, more expensive to operate gas fired plants are switched on. Wind, while expensive to build, is free to operate. So the more the wind blows, the less utilities (and their customers) have to rely on natural gas.

How much less? Tudor Pickering estimates that without the additional wind capacity, Texas would need 3.3 billion cubic feet of gas a day by 2013, but with the 18,500 Mw of wind, demand for gas will drop by half a billion cubic feet, to 2.7 bcf/d.

Of course all this assumes natural gas prices remain relatively high. This has consistently been the case, however, recent gas deposit discoveries in the US could push the price down over the long term.

One Problem: Getting Wind to the Consumer

The good wind is in West Texas, but the problem has been getting the electricity there to the biggest markets in the East part of the state: Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. Currently there is only enough transmission capacity for about 4,500 Mw of power. In 2005, the state legislature authorized the construction of new transmission lines reaching up into the state’s windiest corners which should allow a full 18,500 Mw to flow East by their completion in 2013.

Ironically, while initial concern about the new transmission lines was that no one would use the extra capacity, with the explosive growth of wind power, the question now is who gets first dibs.

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital Blog.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.