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Friday, May 18, 2012

Fracking bans and frying pans

France and Bulgaria have banned hydraulic fracturing.   Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has signed into law the first state ban on hydraulic fracturing (though it is largely symbolic).  A National Day Of Action against fracking has been scheduled for July 28th in Washington, DC. .

What’s the connection?  

Concerns about fracking are real and urgent.  They should not ever be minimized.  They must – and in my view can – be addressed by government AND industry – though we are a long way from doing so. The peril of climate disruption is arguably even more urgent, and it’s long past time to act on a scale commensurate with the crisis. Action requires that choices be made – short- and long-term.  Natural gas – responsibly produced - presents an immediate opportunity – a choice - to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by half and pave the way to renewable energy growth that we are not making fully.  I’m not convinced that we have a better choice.

Can fracking and climate protection be reconciled?

If fracking opponents engage about climate change, a typical response that I’ve heard from very well-intentioned people is that we must rely on energy efficiency, skip over gas, and go right to 100% renewable energy.  It’s possible, they say. Studies have shown it.  Possible, alas, does not mean probable.  One study calculates that, globally, getting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 would require building the equivalent of about twenty million 2 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants.  Those are mind-numbing numbers that ignore costs, resource requirements (a lot more mining of precious metals, for example), manufacturing constraints, infrastructure requirements, and of course, all-too-absent political will.   

Let’s take just the case of the United States, then.   This sobering analysis suggest that – ignoring costs - to reach just 80 percent “clean energy” by 2035which includes a continued reliance on natural gas for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity would require, for example, about 185,000 2-megawatt wind turbines (that’s 22 such turbines erected every day for the next 23 years) or over 700 large (500-megawatt) solar farms to be built.  The largest current solar project in the US is about 10% of that size. These projects would also require overhauling the entire national electricity grid and developing scalable energy storage technologies.  And the same missing political will.

What about efficiency?  The author of the above analysis says that “even if everyone in the U.S. changed all their incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lights, it would still only save about one percent of the total electricity needed to meet the 80 percent target.”

That, of course, is an obvious, serious oversimplification. There are vast opportunities to be had in efficiency gainsWe must invest in and realize these gains.  And we must make a major shift to renewable energy by adjusting our energy policies to drive renewable energy growth.  In even the most visionary approaches to a low carbon economy, however, gas would provide a quarter of our electricity.  Practically, then, we must expand the currently very limited role of distributed generation and smart grids and use natural gas as the vehicle that propels that development, while reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation by half.  Then we must reduce the remaining emissions by 90%, by applying carbon capture and storage technology to all fossil-fueled electricity.

Those are all choices - along with tougher fracking rules, and more science to address fracking’s unknowns - that we can make right now.

We have jumped from the frying pan to the fire. Will we be consumed?   

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