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Renewable energy is important, but natural gas is the key to improving access and sustainability.
There’s little doubt that natural gas can help improve access to electricity around the world. In fact, there’s a compelling case to be made that natural gas is the key to enabling a sustainable energy policy and strategy in the U.S. for the foreseeable future — and to enable pursuit of the grand global energy challenges.
Natural gas-fired power can meet new growth energy demands for expansion and for the retirements of old, less environmentally advanced generation. Gas is also able to provide the shoulder capacity necessary to ramp up and down with the variances in supply and demand. And it’s there when the gaps in renewable supplies occur on days that are not windy or sunny! Natural gas is the enabler to a more thoughtful and mature approach to energy sustainability today — and tomorrow.
Energy sustainability for any nation hinges on three pillars: access, affordability and environmental responsibility. All three pillars are essential, and we cannot cede one pillar for another — we must strive to achieve all three.
But the energy challenge begins with access. The global energy challenge for the coming 50 years will be to meet the needs of 2 billion more people globally — doubling demand for energy — while reaching those who live in abject energy poverty today. We will need every megawatt and megatherm we can produce. So we must focus on access and affordability, and all the while not compromising environmental responsibility. So how can this be accomplished?
The International Energy Agency has projected that nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels by 2050. These fuels are abundant and affordable. And through the deployment of advanced natural gas combined-cycle technologies, we have improved not only the cost profile for power generation, but also the efficiency and environmental footprint. Natural gas has led the growth of new generation capacity in the U.S., as it provides the most effective pathway toward realizing comprehensive energy sustainability for today — and into the future.
So, what of our future? We can all see the decarbonizing of our society as a critical issue — and it is of major focus all over the world. I don’t happen to believe that CO2 is the end-all, be-all of environmental concerns, for there are equally important challenges in water and land and a host of other impacts globally. But we surely have the evidence that CO2 contributes to the global greenhouse gas footprint, so we must address this in any comprehensive strategy.
The deployment of renewables — at a significant global scale to provide energy access to those in need and to impact our environment – is essential. We need an optimized integration of those all energy options, rather than a choice of one or the other.
This optimization can only be achieved if coupled with the necessary capacity, system flexibility and reliability of supply that meet the needs of true energy sustainability. Mass deployment of renewables without a natural gas baseload and shoulder capacity — to handle energy supply and consumption variances — is simply not mature thinking. Systematic and holistic integration of renewables will only be achieved if access to energy is truly improved, with energy continuing to be affordable and cost competitive. Playing a one-note strategy of forcing renewables into our energy mix, without an honest assessment of the impacts, is not true energy sustainability. That’s the path that some in the world today have already taken — and it’s not a good story! Forced renewable portfolio standards have been prematurely pushed into the German and overall EU market, which has created cost and supply reliability disruptions and challenges — along with a 20 percent increase in the use of coal to provide the necessary backup to meet energy reliability requirements.
Some day we will achieve a decarbonized world. Battery storage, system capability improvements, nuclear advancement — these are all transformations we should continue to pursue. But as we do, let’s not lose our minds and turn away from the dramatic improvements that natural gas-supplied power can provide — maybe not everywhere in the world, but certainly in the U.S., where abundant and affordable gas can advance the cause right now. It’s an honest and thoughtful pursuit of real energy sustainability.
The opportunities and challenges in achieving a clean energy future are featured in the fifth episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “Energy on the Edge,” directed by Akiva Goldsman. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.
(Top image: Courtesy of Getty Images)
The Honorable Charles McConnell is Executive Director, Rice University Energy and Environment Initiative. He previously served as Assistant Secretary Of Energy for Fossil Fuels at the US Department of Energy.