Mike Pomorski An answer for Grist: Environmentalists should value electric power supply diversity

In an engaging and thought provoking post, David Roberts over at Grist is torn, asking “should greens ally with natural gas against coal.”  Mr. Roberts notes that on one hand, producing and burning natural gas leaves an environmental footprint.  On the other hand, natural gas has lots of properties (widespread availability, scalability, and relatively lower carbon content) that make it attractive.  What’s an environmentalist to do?

The answer depends on what kind of a green (to use Mr. Roberts’ term) you are.  If you value environmental purity above all other goals then no, you absolutely should not support natural gas (or coal) use, since it would violate your core principles.

If, however, you are more pragmatic shade of green (politically, economically, etc.) and believe that the perfect is not the enemy of the good, then an out of hand rejection of any generating source (certainly natural gas but also coal and nuclear) makes much less sense.

Consider the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA, a.k.a. Waxman-Markey).   As Joseph Romm notes elsewhere in Grist, EIA’s analysis is not without its flaws (nor is Waxman-Markey).  Nonetheless, EIA’s effort is a useful starting point for discussion.

In their ACESA Basic Case (EIA does not assign probabilities to any of their 11 cases, but the Basic Case has gotten the most press), EIA projects that the top two electric power sector sources by generation in 2030 are nuclear (36%) and coal (31%).  Renewables (which include hydro in EIA’s formulation) come in third at 20%.  We meet our ACESA requirement though new technology (a lot of it nuclear) and international offsets, which are the two main reasons why costs are contained.

You might argue that the Basic Case is technology pessimistic.  Well, in their High Technology Case, EIA projects that the largest generating sources in the electric power sector are, again, nuclear (39%), coal (27%), and renewables (24%, again including hydro).

Now suppose that you are skeptical of new technologies like nuclear and clean coal and you are also worried about the availability of international offsets (or you think that the United States should not be able to use international offsets to meet a domestic commitment).  In EIA’s No International/Limited Alternatives Case, which includes these restrictions, the single largest contributor to electric power sector generation is natural gas (36%).   To be sure, less restrictive assumptions about renewables might eat into this share, but still.

The United States meets its ACESA commitment in each of these cases; it just does so in different ways.  Notice that the generation mix in all three is heavily reliant on either a fossil fuel (natural gas or coal) or nuclear, two things that make many environmental purists very angry.

In EIA’s (imperfect) analysis, the idea that climate change regulation can be affordable is inconsistent with rejecting a robust mix of electricity generating options.   If you are an environmental purist you might not care, since cost containment is simply not the issue.  But most people (and I think environmentalists) are more pragmatic.  So my short answer to Mr. Roberts’ question is that greens should ally with low-carbon electricity sources including natural gas, but not to the exclusion of alliances with clean coal and nuclear (natural gas is also like an insurance policy).  That we need a healthy generation mix to meet environmental goals at a reasonable cost is not just an industry tagline.

I should also mention that there is a compelling environmental case to be made for the direct use of natural gas in homes (e.g. your gas space heater).  I won’t spend a lot of time on it here, but I would encourage anyone grappling with Mr. Roberts’ question to consider the AGA/NRDC joint statement regarding direct use of natural gas and decoupling (endorsed by the Alliance to Save Energy and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy).  You can also learn more about decoupling here.

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