There’s nothing quite like renewables: Natural gas production will not reduce future greenhouse gas emissions as hoped

Because burning natural gas produces less CO2 emissions in generating a certain amount of power than coal, it’s seen as a ‘bridging fuel’, a step to getting emissions down. However, a new study accounting for how tricky it is to close existing power plants suggests increasing use of natural gas is not reducing net emissions. Taken together with recent results showing that poor practice in fracking is contaminating groundwater, the case is growing in favour of pushing harder for renewables and – dare I say it – nuclear power to fight climate change. Read more about the latest findings on gas power in Jonathan Trinastic’s interesting post:

Good Night Earth

Appropriate and useful climate policy-making requires accurate and reliable data about the future.  Nowhere is this more important than when setting carbon emission standards and projecting percentages of each energy source to match energy needs (coal, natural gas, nuclear, renewables, etc.).  But projecting how emissions will change in the decades to come, say to meet the 2030 standards, is a tricky business.  In particular, natural gas has been touted as a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon future with predictions that it would take over a share of energy production from coal and thereby reduce net emissions (natural gas has about a fourth of the greenhouse potential of coal, if you take away methane leaks in transportation pipes).

But is this really true?  Does the data back this up?  These are the key questions policymakers must know the answer to when deciding whether to promote natural gas expansion with subsidies, etc.  And it falls…

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9 Responses to “There’s nothing quite like renewables: Natural gas production will not reduce future greenhouse gas emissions as hoped”

  1. Richard Mallett Says:

    We don’t yet have models that produce accurate and reliable data about future temperatures, yet we are investing billions in wind turbines which kill bats and birds, and cause health problems in those who are sensitive to low frequency sound; and we are promoting solar energy in Africa, which also kills bats and birds, and cannot be stored, and so cannot be used at night. Is that what you mean by ‘nothing quite like renewables’ ? Or is this ‘poor practice in renewables’ ?

    • andyextance Says:

      I guess most of us read/see/hear what we want to when it comes to controversial topics: I know you try hard to dig up the facts from the source Richard, but you can’t deny there’s an ulterior motive to why you do that. Could you try and step aside from that viewpoint for a while please?

      It doesn’t matter how good models are: we can use what they output taking into account exactly how good/bad they are. When the early weather forecasts came out they were pretty lousy – yet weather forecasting with sub-optimal technology played a key role in D-Day:

      You could draw whatever parallels you like here.

      We can play up or down the risks to bats and birds as much as you like, but in fact our warming world is a much greater risk to many more species, as I’ve often covered on this blog:

      Yes, renewables have their shortcomings, but if you can overlook a horrible phrase, why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Technologies always strive towards perfection, but they never get there. That doesn’t mean we stop using them. And in fact, even without energy storage renewables can in fact supply the majority of our energy needs. Energy demand peaks in the middle of the day – coincidentally when solar produces the most energy. See this graph for France, where most of their energy is generated by hydro and nuclear, and fossil fuels meet peak demand:

      Now I believe there are challenges with incorporating solar into such a mix, but you can see that the need for sunlight might in fact work out OK. You may not have seen this blog entry where Australians found renewables beat clean coal on cost, and that’s even without nuclear:

      And finally, your outlook on the expense of renewables. You might be interested in the speeches UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond and US foreign secretary John Kerry gave this week while visiting a wind turbine test centre in the US.

      They’ve also co-authored a Boston Globe op-ed, which says “Too often, conventional wisdom argues that we must choose between combating global climate change or growing our economies. But we can do both — by improving resource productivity, investing in infrastructure, and stimulating innovation.”

      All of which is not to say we shouldn’t be working to make things better in the areas you highlight. But I personally don’t think those points are strong enought to mean we shouldn’t use renewables. Having read and thought about these points, how good do you think renewable technologies are at doing what they’re intended to do (generate electricity without emitting CO2)? And how much do your points really subtract from that effectiveness?

      • Richard Mallett Says:

        According to Wikipedia, windmills (which is what we are mainly concerned with in the UK, and which have been used since 1887 to generate electricity) can (even now) only generate an estimated capacity factor of 35-44% of nameplate capacity, so that’s how good they are.

        Your graph for France shows the peak remains fairly steady (slightly declining) between 12:00 and 23:00 so solar can only help with about half of that. We will still need to chop down American trees to burn wood chips in our formerly coal fired power stations, and / or build nuclear power stations.

        The time when the economic benefits outweigh the costs will be when we stop subsidising the windmill companies, and stop paying land holders to have windmills built on their land.

        And we must never lose sight of the fact that we’re doing all this to try to reduce the current 0.65 C per century warming since 1880, which is currently (since 1998) cooling at 0.21 C per century.

        As Kevin Trenberth has said to me :-

        “The 2 deg C rise for being a target is really political and not scientific. To me it is more the rates of change that matter. 2 deg in 50 years would be disastrous but 2 Deg C in 500 years would not: we would adapt.”

        0.65 C per century gives us 308 years, of which we have used 114 years if we start from 1900 (Kevin Trenberth quotes ‘the 1900s’ as when ‘industrial activity started to have global impacts’) so we have another 194 years (or more) to adapt.

        Some increase of temperature (and of CO2) would be beneficial for crop growing, as we have discussed before.

        The Boston Globe figure of 7 degrees (even in Fahrenheit) is just silly. It is ‘crying wolf’ like that that has given ‘global warming’ a bad name, and made people less concerned about it.

        I agree with you that we (meaning the windmill industry and the solar industry) should be working to lessen the dangers to birds and bats (here organisations like the RSPB can play a major role) and the dangers to human health, instead of trying to deny them.

      • Richard Mallett Says:

        And some of the dangers to animals have been exaggerated. Your linked article mentions polar bears, which are increasing, according to the Polar Bear Study Group, and new populations are being found.

      • Richard Mallett Says:

        Another thought occurs to me – all those species that you mention in the linked article lived through the periods of the Holocene when temperatures were at least as high as they are today. They are more adaptable than we sometimes think.

      • Richard Mallett Says:

        I have just read an article in the Telegraph that bats, in particular, mistake windmills for the trunk and branches of trees, and it has been suggested they should be fitted with flashing red lights at night.

  2. philipstrange Says:

    Interesting post. Our present government has failed to back renewables strongly enough and, where I live, public opposition to wind turbines and to solar farms is now very strong. What do we do?

    • andyextance Says:

      I don’t know if you’re aware of Action For Renewables, but you could get involved with them, and maybe see if they can help in your area:
      Am I right in thinking you live in the environs of Exeter? If so, you could maybe come along to the green drinks that happens and see if anyone there has any suggestions: We’re a diverse group – it’s driven by IEMA members but we also get Green party folk, RSPB, other naturalists and conservationists. You’d be very welcome. Otherwise I’d recommend having conversations with your neighbours and try and see their viewpoint, and see if they can see yours. But I live in the middle of a city and seldom get this kind of problem, so what would I know?

      • philipstrange Says:

        Thanks Andy that’s very helpful. I live in Totnes and although there is a very strong groundswell of “green” feeling as well as “transition” ideas, our MP is not receptive and the greater South Hams (including the county council) mind set is more in favour of preserving the look of the countryside as opposed to doing anything to deal with climate change.

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