Richard Ward is director of energy initiatives at the Aspen Science Center and senior energy advisor to the UN Foundation’s Energy Future Coalition. Ward was previously with Royal Dutch Shell, where he served on the Shell Group Sustainability Executive and prepared the sustainability strategy.
The scientific consensus is stark: Earth systems are dangerously close to tipping points which, once crossed, could ignite negative feedback loops and catastrophic climate change beyond human capacity to remedy. Because burning hydrocarbons is the cause, many environmentalists advocate a complete ban on carbon fuel sources in favor of renewables. This is compelling until we consider the numbers. The US uses about 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy a year and emits 6 billion tons of the world’s 30 billion tons of CO2. We use nearly 40 quads of oil for transportation and about 40 quads of energy for electric power. By contrast, our production from wind and solar is only 0.5 quads. To replace the 67 quads of oil, coal, and natural gas with wind and solar would take decades. In this time, the emissions from coal and oil would drive the planet over the brink.
courtesy Kathy Doucette
Even if we were to able ramp up solar and wind power by 20 times our current capacity over the next 20 years, the total contribution would only be 10 percent of the energy we need. We do not have time to be purists. The renewables revolution must occur. But we must make significant cuts in the carbon emissions today – and natural gas offers the fastest way to do that.
Each year, coal emits 2 billion tons of CO2 for electric power generation in the United States. Because natural gas is 50 to 70 percent more carbon efficient than coal for the same energy output, switching our coal generation to natural gas will radically reduce the nation’s emissions by up to 500 million tons of CO2 per year in the near-term (1-2 years) and by more than a billion tons per year in the medium-term (10 years). There are no other options that provide these volumes of reductions this fast. Rapidly transitioning our energy infrastructure away from coal and oil toward renewables backed up by clean burning natural gas makes good sense. Renewables emit no greenhouse gases, and when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, burning natural gas creates far less health and environmental damage than coal and oil. As we expand our renewables portfolio, the natural gas electricity generation could be ratcheted back.
The reason that natural gas generation can be ramped up so quickly in the US is that the infrastructure for electrical generation is sitting idle most of the time. For most of the year, the natural gas-fed electric power plants are used less than 40 percent of the time. The Congressional Research Office estimates that by simply dispatching gas ahead of coal, the US could reduce 400 million tons of CO2 per year with existing infrastructure.
Just because transitioning from coal to renewables and natural gas is smart doesn’t mean it will be easy. The coal lobby will not go away quietly. They sponsor climate skeptics, support efforts to shut down natural gas development, and flood the air space with disingenuous information. Fear is their best tool. The latest example is that leaking pipes will make a shift to natural gas more dangerous and emit more methane than staying with coal. Environmentalists must not be fooled. It is good that the EPA has raised leaking flanges and compressors as a concern, not to discredit natural gas, but to improve regulations to ensure that the gas stays in the pipes until it is burned.
Coal-fired power plants remain among the top emmitters of fine particle pollution, mercury, SO2 and NOx in the country. According to the Clean Air Task Force, this pollution caused over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, almost 10,000 hospitalizations, and more than 20,000 heart attacks. Shifting to renewables and natural gas is the patriotic thing to do because significantly more Americans die every year from coal emissions than have died in the World Trade Center attack and the eight years of Iraq and Afghan wars combined (nearly 11,000 fatalities).
In the transportation sector, electric cars charged by a grid that is powered by renewables and natural gas would deliver tremendous CO2 emissions reductions. For larger vehicles, natural gas can substitute directly for oil. Take as just one opportunity our long-haul 18-wheeler fleet which cannot be run on batteries. If we converted 40 percent of 18-wheel trucks to natural gas, we would displace about 20 percent of our diesel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 40 million tons per year.
Making a transition from oil to renewables and natural gas would have other benefits. In an average month, the US imports more than 300 million barrels of oil. In 2011, we will send approximately a third of a trillion dollars out of the country to pay for our gasoline and diesel. Switching to electric cars and to natural gas powered trucks would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improve national security, reduce our trade deficit, strengthen our economy, and radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups are rightly concerned about the impact that “unconventional” natural gas drilling has on groundwater, surface water, communities, and biodiversity. Currently, shale gas exploration and production is governed by a complex set of federal, state, and local laws. This fragmented regulatory landscape poses a challenge to ensuring responsible production practices and address public concerns about the environment. We must launch a multilateral effort that encourages pro-active participation and collaboration by NGOs, industry, elected officials, and regulators to do it right. A critical goal must be to demonstrate that government, NGO’s and industry can work together.
We must resolve these environmental and public health concerns as quickly as possible so that natural gas can be used without harm. The technical solutions are well known; no inventions are necessary. We just need the will to come together and work it out. We have missed so many chances in the past to shift our energy system. This could be our last chance; we cannot miss this opportunity.
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