Natural Gas: “Bridge Fuel” or Renewable Energy Killer?

Natural gas is often portrayed as a “bridge fuel,” providing a lower-carbon alternative to coal while zero-carbon technologies, wind and solar primarily, scale up capacity and, hopefully, lower their price.

In the long term this may be accurate, but in the short term there’s a different possibility: cheap natural gas will stymie growth in wind and solar by providing a “second best” solution to meeting green house gas reduction benchmarks. In the process, the United States could find itself addicted to a new fossil fuel, delaying the much-needed switch to renewable energy.

Cheap and “Less Dirty”

The price of natural gas is now about $3 per thousand cubic feet, less than the cost of extraction, and far below its high of $13 in the summer of 2008. While the price is expected to rise as the economy recovers and power usage increases, new estimates put domestic reserves at 2000 trillion cubic feet, enough gas for 100 years, at current rates of consumption. These discoveries could keep gas relatively cheap for years to come, while providing energy independence, a key factor in the debate over energy and climate change.

Since natural gas emits half the CO2 of coal, and even less of other pollutants, states (and the country as a whole) can realize lower greenhouse emissions without developing wind and solar plants — simply by switching from coal fired plants to gas. And while this will raise electricity prices, it will not raise prices as much as switching to renewables, which are almost always more expensive than gas, especially without subsidies.

For instance, Texas has the largest wind power capacity in the country — 8000 Mw and counting — but already electricity programs that sell that clean power are suffering because “dirty” electricity is cheaper.

And while a recent report by Tudor Pickering Holt argues that wind power is actually cutting into natural gas power generation, Texas has made an enormous investment in wind power, including billions on transmission lines to connect wind-rich parts of the state with consumers. Other states, which don’t have the same natural resources, or may be reluctant or unable to invest in infrastructure to develop them when they can get a pretty good drop in CO2 simply by buying more natural gas-fired electricity.

The same factors could conceivably come into play with vehicles, with natural gas replacing gasoline at the pump, which in turn could hurt the development of zero emission electric vehicles.

Gas Industry Fires Up Lobbying

The natural gas industry has stepped up its lobbying of Congress to include support for the industry in whatever climate bill makes it way into law (if any). Chris Mcgill, Managing Director of Policy Analysis for the Natural Gas Association, told Greenwire that since almost all of our natural gas is from domestic sources, it is a secure form of energy that cannot be held hostage to the vagaries of international politics and other factors that have influenced the price of oil in recent years. Evidence from 2008 suggests gas prices are far from immune to such swings, but at the very least, it is a potent talking point when dealing with governments and utilities.

On the other hand, there is no getting around the fact that natural gas is still polluting, and, as a fossil fuel, is of limited supply, even if that supply has grown. We may have a 100 year supply at current rates of consumption, but if we start to rely more and more on gas, we will burn up that supply a lot faster. There have also been complaints about environmental damage caused by extracting gas.

If electricity from natural gas replaces some renewable power projects, it will be a loss for the environment. But if it is also killing coal power plants, then it will offset that damage, and may prove to be the bridge fuel some hope it will. It’s just going to be a longer bridge.

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.

5 responses

  1. Seems almost ridiculous to be having this debate. This one be in my opinion something as a last resort arguement of oil industry proponents to foster as reasoning to stymie the urgent move away from oil.In a nut shell what is being said is lets continue to add to twice the amount of polluants to the air lets continue to allow our country to be held hostage by middle eastern interests until a new cheaper method of energy is devised or advanced.At the very least it is assuring to see the only arguement aganist our best chance of cutting our addiction to oil is fear of dependence on a form of energy found right here at home with a life expendency of 100 years. Maybe in fifty years as time appears to be running out the fear of gas running low will foster the same urgency to move from oil most feel today.

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