Conservation groups pointed to last week’s shortage-induced grid alert in California as one more reason to back off on natural gas and go harder with renewables.
This is a long-simmering dispute, not just between the usual left-right foes, but among allies. We saw it with the State of the Union address, in January, when President Obama said that natural gas has the potential to be “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” The Sierra Club, mirroring the view of many conservationists, responded by calling natural gas “a bridge to nowhere.”
The Sierra Club’s skepticism about natural gas was seemingly bolstered last Thursday when the California Independent System Operator asked customers statewide to reduce their energy use between 1 and 10 p.m. as the extreme cold in other parts of the U.S. and Canada triggered a gas shortage in Southern California [PDF].
Natural gas has long been a favorite source of electricity for California, preferred for its “dispatchability” – grid operators like the way natural gas-fired plants can be quickly powered up and down to meet shifting demand. In 2012, some 45.6 percent of California’s in-state electricity generation was from natural gas. And gas has become even more important in the past couple of years due to the shut-down of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California.
Gas has also been promoted by foes of renewables as cheaper and – here’s the big thing – totally reliable, while intermittent wind and solar have been attacked as dangerous to the grid. Too much solar and wind, the story has gone, would spell doom; better to go with natural gas for a secure source of energy.
Well, it didn’t turn out that way last week in California. Natural gas proved unreliable. Meanwhile, as renewable energy expert Paul Gipe wrote:
There was no shortage of generation from new renewables Thursday. Geothermal, biomass, biogas, and small hydro generated a steady 1,700 MW throughout the day or nearly 6% of peak demand. Meanwhile solar photovoltaics (solar PV) peaked at 1,800 MW around noon and wind power reached 2,700 MW during the evening peak period. Altogether, renewables generated nearly 15% of total consumption on 6 February. Wind energy provided nearly half of all renewable generation during the 24-hour period; geothermal, nearly 25%; solar PV, 12%.
Critics of wind and solar energy often use the old canard that California can’t move further toward renewable generation until storage is available. However, the mini crisis on Thursday illustrates that natural gas is equally unreliable as well if there is insufficient pipeline capacity or local storage.
The Sierra Club said the incident proved that natural gas isn’t the energy savior it’s sometimes made out to be:
Rather than rushing to approve new gas plants that will make our grid even more vulnerable, the Commission should focus on using existing local clean energy technology, like energy storage, energy efficiency, and renewable energy, to build a cleaner and more reliable electric grid.
The Obama administration has, of course, done much to encourage the development of renewables. The administration insists that it doesn’t see natural gas as the long-term solution, but instead as complementary in the short or medium term to more renewables. That’s a view captured in a new report prepared for U.S. energy policymakers from the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. According to the JISEA:
The paper, Exploring the Potential Business Case for Synergies between Natural Gas and Renewable Energy, identifies revenue opportunities that emerge from systems-level perspectives in “bulk energy” (large-scale electricity and natural gas production, transmission, and trade) and four “distribution edge” subsectors: industrial, residential, commercial, and transportation end uses. Example areas of potential business collaboration include transmission corridors that serve both technologies, and flexible fuel turbines that allow for fuel diversification, added energy security, and reduced price risk.
A PDF of that study is available here.