Once among its biggest cheerleaders, many environmentalists now vehemently oppose natural gas — and the hydraulic fracturing process that has made it more abundant than ever in the U.S. — based largely on their claim that the shale gas revolution slows the growth of renewables.
But a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper illustrates a couple realities anti-fracking activists should start embracing: Renewables absolutely must have natural gas as a backup to be a viable energy option. And because of that fact, fracking has actually helped renewable energy growth, according to the study:
“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 comprehensive study evaluated data between 1990 and 2013 from 26 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, finding that a one percent increase in the electrical generation share of “fast reacting fossil technologies” (translation: natural gas) is associated with a 0.88 percent increase in renewable generation capacity in the long term. In other words, renewable electricity generation has grown at roughly the same rate as natural gas-fired electrical generation over the past two-plus decades.
The paper completely dispels the myth that natural gas is the renewable energy industry’s mortal enemy, and the Washington Post sums up the reality of the relationship between the two perfectly with the headline “Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas.”
The reason is very simple. Due to the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine — and there are currently no viable economic storage options for the power generated when they do — wind and solar are the very definition of “intermittent” power sources. As we all know, energy demand is anything but “intermittent,” which is why the ability of natural gas to quickly ramp up and down to meet demand make it an ideal, complementary match to wind and solar output, according to the study.
The notion that wind and solar can stand alone is a myth that study co-author Elena Verdolini of Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Milan, Italy, directly addresses both in the Post article and in the paper itself.
“When people assume that we can switch from fossil fuels to renewables they assume we can completely switch out of one path, to another path,” Verdolini told the Post, noting the study suggests otherwise.
“The problem of matching demand and supply is magnified in the case of renewables due to their variability vis-à-vis fossil-based generation and to the fact that times of peak production do not necessarily take place at times of high demand.”
Of course, as the study notes, natural gas use also drives down carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, making it environmentally preferable to other fossil fuel options that could be used for backup. Coupled with historically low prices due to abundant supply made possible by fracking, natural gas has become the top source of electrical generation in the U.S. Not coincidentally, the Energy Information Administration reported last week that energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to be at their lowest levels since 1992 in 2016. Harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and fine particulate matter are also in rapid decline, thanks to increased natural gas use.
Activists would be sure to point out that a 100 percent conversion to renewable energy would eliminate all such emissions altogether, but the report notes that several factors — including financial considerations that have long been overlooked — make such a conversion completely unrealistic in the present time. Renewable energy advocates often point out that the cost of installing such technologies is becoming more and more affordable. But they often completely fail to take into account the significant costs of installing natural gas backup, which, as the report notes, adds significant costs:
“…the estimated indirect costs of renewables are at least an order of magnitude greater than those associated with dispatchable fossil-fuel technologies. For the latter, system costs are relatively modest, generally estimated below USD 3 per MWh in OECD countries. For the formers, such costs are as high as USD 40 per MWh for onshore wind, USD 45 per MWh for offshore wind and USD 80 per MWh for solar (IEA 2012). These high estimates are the direct results of the need for additional system reserves and back-up generation to ensure system reliability.”
Considering that some states are mandating the use of renewable power, the report concludes, “these challenges will only further increase as the share of renewable energy generation increases to levels never witnessed before. To date these aspects have been only marginally considered in economic analyses of renewable energy deployment.”
All these economic and functionality concerns regarding renewable electricity generation considered, the report clearly illustrates natural gas and renewables go hand-in-hand.
This is a pragmatic reality environmental groups such as the Sierra Club embraced as recently as 2009. But Sierra Club, 350.org and others changed their tune once the shale gas revolution took hold, with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign being a prime example.
This study not only demonstrates why this stance has been highly criticized for being hypocritical and damaging for both consumers and American energy development, it also adds to the overwhelming chorus of objective parties — including the renewable energy industry — that agree shale gas compliments renewables:
- Echoing this study’s conclusions, the Solar Energy Industries Association has said “gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.”
- Clean energy advocates at the Breakthrough Institute have said, “gas is really good for renewables,” while Breakthrough Institute head Michael Shellenberger has stated that the rejection of natural gas by celebrities and other activists is deeply flawed and “demonstrates the ignorance of renewable power advocates to suggest that renewables can run without gas. We don’t get to say, ‘I only want solar and wind.’”
- A 2013 report released by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition has reconfirmed that natural gas and renewables “are complementary, not competing, resources.”
- Business Council for Sustainable Energy president Lisa Jacobson said in 2013 that “Gas generators, which are inherently flexible technologies that can be easily ramped up and down to meet demand, are natural counterparts for variable resources such as wind and solar.”
- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has stated “Power generation based on natural gas offers the flexibility and increased dispatchability that complements renewable energy power generation”
- And according to a landmark study S. Secretaray of Energy Ernest Moniz co-chaired while at MIT: “In broad terms, we find that, given the large amounts of natural gas available in the U.S. at moderate cost … natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system.”
All of this points to the fact that opposition to fracking for natural gas is, essentially, opposition renewable energy as well.