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Monday, July 29, 2013

Beware oversimplifications on energy and climate

Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea has gained notoriety for his vocal opposition to natural gas development, though his earliest work claiming that natgas-fired electricity has worse CO2 emissions than coal-fired power has been debunked so many times that I've stopped counting.

Ingraffea and his colleague Robert Horwath do, however, deserve great credit for raising the crucial issue of methane emissions from natgas production - and area which needs more study and urgent action beyond even what U.S. EPA has ordered - to minimize those emissions across the entire natgas value chain.

Now, Ingraffea writes in a New York Times op-ed that natural gas is "a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments." 

Really?

The year 2012 saw both historic lows in natural gas prices AND record years for solar and wind power installation (the latter,  part, due to a rush to get projects built before the expiration of the Federal wind power production tax credit).  And renewable energy installations doubled between 2009-2012, in the midst of a low natgas price regime.

They are the facts.  Yet the claim of natgas hurting renewables continues to be made. 

Ingraffea says that "We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably..." 

Really?

Renewables investments are projected to triple by 2030.  Still, that tripling is still far below the levels of investment needed to combat global climate disruption. Indeed, solar and wind power will be hard-pressed to meet just the annual increase in U.S. electricity demand as things stand today.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has said that it's possible to get to 80% renewable energy by 2050 with currently-available technologies. The remainder - the baseload generation needed to flexibly compliment renewable energy in NREL's 80% scenario - is natural gas. One expert has pegged the cost of this transition at $6 trillion.

Whether 40 years is quick and $6 trillion is affordable is worth thinking about. At the very least, the problem is vastly more complicated than Ingaffea apparently would have you believe.

Implied all too often in the "no gas, just renewables and efficiency" argument is that the impacts of  natgas development also magically go away with a shift to renewables. Take for example, the landscape impacts of natgas development.   As I wrote here
Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL. Again, there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.
There is no free energy lunch.
And our energy future is not as simple as opponents of shale gas development imply.

I'm not arguing for shale gas, and I'm certainly not arguing against an urgent drive to renewables and efficiency.  Regular readers of this blog will recognize that.  What I am arguing for is a real, fact-based, scientifically-sound discussion and dialogue - not a series of monologues - on this highly complex issue.

One last point on which I completely agree with Professor Ingraffea.  When it comes to addressing the peril of climate disruption and achieving a sustainable, clean-energy future, as he writes: "Political will is the missing ingredient." That political will must be grounded in fact and science, not oversimplifications.


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