Renewables and Gas: The Odd Couple Should Work Together

The following was written by James Coan, research associate at the Baker Institute Energy Forum

Renewables and natural gas have not traditionally been close allies. Natural gas has been described as a bridge to the future with renewables as a destination, but this vision does not include much co-existence of the fuels in the meantime. That is ironic because despite the differences in political supporters, this odd couple could work extremely well together. They both have substantial environmental benefits when compared with coal, and in the short run, natural gas can serve as the backup fuel to deal with the problem that some renewables, such as wind power, are intermittent. Natural gas peaking facilities can be ramped up and down quickly to match demand, facilitating system stability for the integration of intermittent renewables.

Still, many advocates of either natural gas or renewables view the other competitively. This subject was discussed at recent meetings I attended at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.

With huge new shale deposits now accessible (see Dr. Medlock’s presentation), natural gas prices have fallen so dramatically that it no longer makes much sense to build much renewable capacity, and installations of new wind capacity in the first half of 2010 are down 71% from last year. Increasing wind generation, particularly in Texas, has reduced demand for natural gas; a 2008 study concluded that 81% of wind in Texas displaced natural gas.

While the new shale deposits of natural gas could offer tremendous energy security benefits to the U.S., some advocates of renewable energy just cannot seem to embrace this low carbon fossil fuel. But the reality is that it is not feasible to scale up renewables to replace coal, much less all fossil fuels, in any time frame other than decades. Similarly, only using natural gas to displace all coal used for electricity would require nearly a tripling of natural gas in the electricity sector, increasing the consumption of domestic natural gas delivered to consumers by about 60 percent (roughly 12.6 tcf).
Thus we urge all parties to rethink themselves. Renewables and natural gas can find common ground, and the transition to both will benefit society at large. New EPA regulations on air pollutants that contribute to smog and asthma should help shut down the least efficient coal plants, providing a new market while benefitting public health. Rapid depreciation of investment costs benefitted natural gas wildcatters that opened up the shale play, and they can encourage private capital in renewables as well. The Senate energy bill encourages electric vehicles, increasing electricity demand that can be met with natural gas and renewables and helping to reduce foreign oil consumption.

Texas is a good experiment for how natural gas and renewables can co-exist and may be able to thrive together. In the long-run, Baker Institute scholar Peter Hartley believes wind will displace more baseload coal because wind more consistently blows at night (see Dr. Hartley’s presentation). This odd couple, long estranged and weary of each other, could be working together to dramatically improve our environmental quality.

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  1. PJ Devine

    Thank you. As obvious and practical as your suggestion seems, it is amazing that the so called great minds of industry do not get it. I think if what is in this article is not adopted Houston will suffer the same fate as Detroit by being in denial. I also think that instead of Saudi Arabia, we will be kissing up to the Chinese and several other countries to purchase the products that will be providing the US energy in 20-25 years.

  2. Don’t be fooled. The gas industry loves renewables, because as long as there are renewables, there will be a large need for natural gas.
    Solar and wind are not stable enough for baseload generation, nor can they be used for on-demand for peaking. Natural gas spinning reserve is not only essential to make wind useful, it’s also inefficient. It would be just as well to let the gas turbines run in a more efficient mode and forget the wind turbines altogether. Energy storage schemes such as hydro-storage or molten salt solar thermal take a big bite out of their already low output.
    It’s questionable as to whether a utility scale solar plant is even capable of generating enough energy to replace what was used to build and maintain it.
    The only way we’re going to get off of coal is with a massively scaleable, baseload-capable energy source, and we already have that at hand. It’s called nuclear. We should be building nuclear power plants as fast as possible to put coal out of business.
    Unfortunately, the coal and gas people know that the only threat to their business is nuclear, so they quietly push renewables, and support efforts to demonize nuclear.

  3. Hurry up with that solar– I hear the sun will run out of it in a few billion years.

  4. Black Lung

    You say renewable I say intermittent. Of course wind displaced natural gas in Texas, it’s the marginal fuel. Why don’t we remove all incentives for wind and solar generation and see how economically competitive they are. And how about making those customers buying a 100% wind power supply consume only wind the wind is blowing?

  5. Renewables like wind and solar has some things in common with gas, they are all the most expensive forms of energy. Wind will never be baseload, even in the best situations like offshore east and west coasts, even if the NIMBY crowd can be overcome, which they can’t. Solar is just not ready for prime time due to excessive costs, low efficiency, and intermittancylike wind. To make wind and solar, or any other exotic, expensive,unreliable renewables (algae, etc.) viable there must be a breakthrough in R&D to drastically improve the technology. Don Quixote would recognize our wind technology that keeps getting installed with massive taxpayer funded subsidies. This article speaks to this problem:
    What needs to happen is a $40-$50 billion/year R&D effort to make renewables as cheap as fossil fuels. Why waste our tax money subsidizing, installing, and mandating inefficient, antiquated, and hugely expensive technology?

  6. Jim

    The combination is mind boggling in that not much as been done. In Texas, there are superb wind patterns that have partially tapped for power. With a better grid system, it is a system that can provide reliable clean energy 24/7. Go to Sweetwater and it is extremely rare for the turbines not to be spinning.
    Solar power is under used in Texas and Louisiana with the long hours of sunny days on the same days when the grid is strained. There are excellent examples of solar projects on homes on too small a scale. There conventional panels to DOW’s roofing solar tiles. With incentives like Louisiana, this is a no brained for energy needs during peak power usage.
    Natural gas in power plants & cogeneration plants are well known clean options. What is grossly overlooked is the use of CNG vehicles in Texas & Louisiana. This is a waste. CNG can refill cars at home overnight for about $1.50 per gallon. However there are no CNG stations on I-10 in either state despite our reserves. There are no CNG vehicle sales & conversion programs as a result. This is a better use of natural gas that works & can clean up the environment painlessly with cheap fuel.

  7. Gene

    This is not only a sensible idea, it is one of the few that I have heard that makes sense. In the interest of disclosure, I have made my living for 25+ years writing software for the energy industry, but I am also *strongly* convinced that we need to move to energy sources with less environmental impact.
    Not only should we be moving to renewables with the most haste we can muster and leveraging our vast resources of natural gas in the interim for heating and electricity, we should be *converting* our domestic automobile fleet to natural gas immediately.
    The technology to do so exists today, and it is not cost prohibitive. The largest cost will be infrastructure transition, but we know this can be achieved – the federal government started on this path in the 90s under the Clinton administration, beginning by offering incentives to convert municipal and transit authority fleets, but it was all shelved under Bush.
    Imagine the many-leveled benefits of the energy independence this would bring us. Plus the added benefit of the reduced, although certainly not eliminated, carbon footprint. And we can save the oil we do produce for feedstock and strategic uses.
    As the author points out, it will be decades before we can scale renewable sources (and we should be building nuclear power plants as fast as we safely can as well.)
    It never ceases to amaze me that those who want to move to more sustainable energy sources, whose end goal I fundamentally and completely agree with, don’t offer a rational and workable plan to get there.
    If all the oil on the earth simply disappeared or was otherwise unavailable tomorrow, literally 100s of millions, if not billions of people would *die*. And the rest would probably wish they did.
    We *need* energy for our modern society to function and to support the populations we have amassed – to ignore these needs is myopic and unrealistic – just as much as it is to ignore the end-point of the path we are on.

  8. Keith

    Solar power has it’s weaknesses too. We use solar power to maintain the flow computers on our gas wells. These are high efficient computers that need very little power. We also use low frequency/low voltage radios for communications. If there are three days of cloud cover, our radio communications shuts itself in because there is not enough power to communicate and maintain the flow computer.
    Bottom line – both solar and wind are far from being able to provide steady year round energy for the public. People that think otherwise are living in a dream world.

  9. Alamo36

    There are major reasons I believe we should utilize our massive American natural gas reserves:
    1) Over and beyond the export penalty we pay for buying 350 billion dollars of crude annually, we lose the economic benefit of 2, 3, 4, or more times this amount of money that our economy could be benefitted by utilizing our domestic resource. (and anytime you multiply 350 billion dollars by anything other than zero, you’re talking real money.
    2) Reputable economists tell us that there are a minimum of $1.00 in national security costs inherent in every gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel we buy in addition to the pump price.
    3) When used as a transportation fuel, compressed natural gas (CNG) is less expensive by about 40 percent than either gasoline or diesel without considering those national security cost savings.
    4) CNG is beyond a doubt our best fossil fuel—mechanically, environmentally, economically and national security-wise.
    5) We currently are increasing our world-leading reserves of natural gas at a time that the likelihood of discovering any American so-called “giant” or “super giant” oil formations is very remote. As our dependency or more correctly, “our addiction” to foreign-controlled crude is increasing every year, our crude production continues to decrease. Economics 101 tells us that fundamentally, crude prices are
    6)The transition to a CNG fueled transportation system would be an enormously positive job creator at a time we critically need good paying non-exportable jobs.
    In addition to the suggested benefits cited above transitioning to CNG will in all likelihood introduce positive efficiences into the American transportation system where any kind of efficiency reverberates throughout the economy. In essence there are no products or services that do not have a transportation or distribution cost attached to them and using a better American domestic fuel source will return American prosperity.