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Clean Little Secret: Natural Gas Helps Generate Renewable Energy

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Turns out wind and solar have a dirty (read: clean) little secret: natural gas helps generate renewable energy.

New findings published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest that natural gas could be a key factor in the proliferation of renewables:

“Our paper calls attention to the fact that renewables and fast-reacting fossil technologies appear as highly complementary and that they should be jointly installed to meet the goals of cutting emissions and ensuring a stable supply,” the paper [says].

The type of “fast-reacting fossil technologies” being referred to here is natural gas plants that fire up quickly. For example, General Electric and EDF Energy currently feature a natural gas plant in France that “is capable of reaching full power in less than 30 minutes.” Full power, in this case, means rapidly adding over 600 megawatts, or million watts, of electricity to the grid.

The ability to come online quickly is one of natural gas’ greatest assets, allowing it to fill the void when renewable generation slips, or starts slow:

Because of the particular nature of clean energy sources like solar and wind, you can’t simply add them to the grid in large volumes and think that’s the end of the story. Rather, because these sources of electricity generation are “intermittent” — solar fluctuates with weather and the daily cycle, wind fluctuates with the wind — there has to be some means of continuing to provide electricity even when they go dark. And the more renewables you have, the bigger this problem can be.

The low cost of natural gas makes it an economically practical alternative to battery storage, which is still new and expensive. Natural gas is also much cleaner and cheaper than other options like coal, explaining its recent increased usage:

EIA estimates that the amount of electricity generated using natural gas reached a record high during July, surpassing the previous record set in July 2015. The record natural gas-fired generation was driven by competitive economics compared with coal.

Natural gas has been described as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable future. This study helps bolster that notion.


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