Natural Gas Is an Energy Solution That Works Today
Wind and solar power are intermittent and require coal and natural gas backup
November 29, 2011
Yes. In the national energy debate, natural gas is seen as a competitor with wind and solar to reduce our dependence on coal-fired electricity generation. We should utilize all our energy resources responsibly, but some are clearly more important than others. We currently get 49 percent of our power from burning coal, 21 percent from nuclear, 18 percent from natural gas (www.eia.gov, 2010 statistics). Wind accounts for only 2 percent and solar a mere 0.03 percent. If you look closer at wind, which has great promise and has been expanding rapidly in recent years, Texas has the largest installed wind capacity in the United States, on the order of 10,000 megawatts (MW). However, because the wind doesn't blow all the time, Texas generates only 2,000 MW from wind (or a 2 MW wind turbine produces only about 0.4 MW usable power). The power equivalence represented by the current gas production from only one shale gas play, the Barnett Shale (1850 Bcf/year), is about 25,000 MW (assuming 40 percent efficiency for a gas power plant), equivalent to over 60,000 wind turbines or 25 coal-fired power plants or the average power usage of 25 million homes. Natural gas can be produced on demand and natural gas power plants can be spooled up and down on demand as well. Both wind and solar are intermittent and thus still require the construction of coal or natural gas backup for base load and peak power capacity.
What about the environment? According to the EPA, natural gas electricity generation produces half the carbon dioxide of coal, less than a third of the nitrogen oxides and 1 percent of the sulfur oxides. Best practices in natural gas drilling provide multiple lines of protection for groundwater resources. There have been problems, but they have been rare and most importantly, they are avoidable. Just like any other industrial activity, there are risks, but good engineering, in combination with sensible and effective regulation, reduces those risks to maximize societal benefit. Water usage, often decried as irresponsible, is small compared to other domestic water consumers. Marcellus Shale gas development accounts for one one-hundredth of the domestic water usage rate in Pennsylvania, and one fifth of what is used in the state solely to care for livestock.
We are a big country with big energy needs. Natural gas is an energy solution that works today, at utility scale with current technology. Shale gas is the most promising natural resource find in decades. We should utilize it.