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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bob Dylan, climate disruption, and natural gas

A change in the weather is known to be extreme…

So begins the last verse of the Bob Dylan song You’re A Big Girl Now.

The past twelve months were the warmest ever in U.S. history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  They have included the nation’s second warmest summer, fourth warmest winter, and the warmest March on record. Fifteen thousand warm temperature records were broken in March alone.  Twenty-two states experienced record warmth for the 12-month period, and nineteen more states had years in which warmth ranked in their top ten.

NOAA says that the January – April 2012 period was the warmest January – April period since record keeping began in 1895.  It was also the most extreme January – April on record: 82% of the contiguous U.S. had maximum temperatures that were in the warmest 10% historically, and 68% had warm minimum temperatures in the top 10%, with records going back to 1910.

But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?...

That second line of You’re A Big Girl Now’s last verse is music to the ears of climate disruption deniers. Despite the fact that it will impact business and dramatically impact our national security (two favorite themes of the right). After all, they say, since climate science believers are like murderers and madmen.

But we must change horses or be swept away.  Change is happening, thanks to the Obama Administration’s commitment to reducing carbon pollution and a switch from coal-fired power to natural gas, which is enabling dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide pollution (and in other pollution that sickens and kills).  But the change must happen faster. We have an opportunity now to capitalize on the synergies between renewable energy and natural gas. The Worldwatch Institute has published an important report that lays out a path to speeding the transition to a low-carbon economy.
The gist of that report is this. Renewable energy is variable. Wind doesn’t blow all the time, and cloudy days and nighttime cut into solar productivity. Big coal plants that provide for base load on the electricity grid are inflexible; they are slow to turn up or down, and have great difficulty accommodating for the variability of renewable energy. That incompatibility strains the electricity grid and is used by renewable energy naysayers to argue that the future role for renewable resources is small. 

Enter natural gas.

Gas-fired technology for electricity generation is efficient, flexible, and scalable over a considerable range. It lends itself to distributed generation – a more secure way to generate electricity in the face of weather disasters and even terrorism threats – that is also more efficient. Transmitting energy long distances involves considerable “line losses” – we lose a big chunk of electrons to the friction of transmitting them over hundreds of miles of wires. Generating electricity – and heat - on-site avoids those losses and may provide significant cost savings.

So, because of the flexibility of gas-fired technology that is readily available today, Worldwatch says that natural gas is a “natural partner for variable renewable energy sources” like wind and solar power.

The security, efficiency, economic and climate benefits of consciously and aggressively using natural gas as a bridge fuel to a renewable future are ours for the taking. That cleaner, cooler, cheaper, more secure future must be our nation’s future.  

We must build the natural partnership between renewable energy and natural gas as quickly as possible. Inherent in building that partnership involves enacting and enforcing the right regulations on gas drilling operations and methane emissions (from planning to drilling to transport of gas to market). Minimizing impacts and monitoring them. Adapting the rules to follow where science leads.

The third verse of that Dylan song sums up the situation:

I can change, I swear, oh
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it too

We can change and make it to a low carbon future. Will we?

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