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Sep
2013
25

Make Watts, Not War: Natural Gas and Renewable Energy Can Walk Hand in Energy Independent Hand

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The Wall Street Journal last week took a look at 6 myths surrounding renewable energy, providing insight into a subject that is often debated using outdated talking points.  In many ways, America stands at a crossroads in terms of energy as new methods of capturing natural gas have led to an energy boom that is likely to last for decades.  Yet, many people are mislabeling the gas boom without realizing an overhaul in ideology may be necessary to power the future.  

Renewable energy working hand-in-hand with traditional resources provides the best pathway to energy independence. Unfortunately, the varying methods of energy extraction and delivery are often pitted against each other as if they cannot coexist.  Two of the six myths discussed in the WSJ article highlight how a clearer vision of energy’s future can empower us.  

The first myth is that renewable energy can replace all fossil fuels.  The utopia of renewables alone fueling the nation is under-informed despite how rosy and delightful it would be. In reality, it is conceptually difficult to fathom a scenario in which our power grid is rebuilt at a pace which will allow us to completely wean off fossil fuels.  From the WSJ:

Focusing on electricity, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tackled this question. They found that, technically, by 2050 the U.S. could get 80% of its electricity from renewable energy and keep the lights on every hour, every day, in every corner of the country. (Their study did not consider a 100%-renewable scenario.)

Perhaps. But getting there would be a long, tough slog. The study found that the U.S. would need to install about 20,000 megawatts of renewable generating capacity every year for a couple of decades, gradually ramping up to about 40,000 megawatts every year. The study found no reason to doubt the global renewable-energy industry’s ability to eventually meet that level of production. What might be trickier, the study found, is finding a place to put all those wind farms, solar arrays and hydroelectric facilities.

Managing the big upfront capital costs of wind and solar power would be another obstacle. And down the road there could be another challenge: Areas with lots of variable power could see wholesale power prices close to zero at times. That would complicate the economic case for fresh investments in generation capacity year after year.

The U.S. would also need to virtually duplicate the entire existing network of transmission lines by 2050 to handle 80% renewable energy. The study notes that the trick would be figuring out where the lines would go, who would pay for them, and which state and local governments would be in charge.

In other words, there’s no technical reason renewable energy can’t provide 80% of the power in the U.S. by midcentury. But there are a host of challenges that would have to be met first.

Another highlight from the article is the call-out of the common thought that cheap natural gas is the natural enemy of clean energy. WSJ delivers a solid takedown of this fallacy and explains how natural gas and renewable energy can go hand in hand:

A glance at national trends makes clear that the two energy sources can grow together. Natural-gas electricity generation rose 34% from 2009 to 2012. Wind generation rose 92% in the same period and solar generation almost fourfold, though the renewables grew from a much smaller base.

Granted, cheap natural gas makes it difficult for wind power to compete without federal subsidies. But researchers are finding that gas and wind complement each other as part of a balanced electricity-generation portfolio.

Look at it from a utility’s perspective. Natural-gas plants have low upfront costs, don’t rely on fickle federal subsidies, and their output can be dispatched to meet swings in power demand. Gas, therefore, gives reliable power now, with little worry in the short term about federal policies.

But over the longer term, volatile gas prices could be deadly—as could environmental rules from Washington. That makes the wind farms and other renewable-energy projects an appealing way to hedge. Almost all of their costs are up front—there’s no fuel to buy, so no worries about volatile prices. Because renewable energy doesn’t produce any harmful emissions, it doesn’t face the specter of future federal rules—and indeed could benefit from state rules mandating green power.

Not unlike the constant congressional deadlock we’re witnessing in washington, a hard-headed refusal to compromise on energy initiatives will have a crippling effect on our ability to develop successful outcomes. The future of energy is dependant on the decisions we make now.  Policy pertaining to the growth of industry and fair regulation will impact the growth potential of each individual energy sector.  A comprehensive plan that includes all forms of energy is our best chance of achieving our energy goals.  In a political atmosphere in which each individual sector has their own powerful lobby influencing the policy makers that determine the future, a desire to work together can not be optional.

Allow WSJ to bust more myths for you, here.

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