Is it Time to Embrace Natural Gas as a Tool to Reduce Emissions & Facilitate Renewables?
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.org March 11, 2015
Part 5 of 5 – Conclusion
Energy is important to modern society and energy consumption is a reliable indicator of wealth and prosperity. Nations which use small amounts of energy are almost uniformly poor. Inversely, countries which consume copious amounts of energy are substantially wealthier. We should continue to strive for greater energy efficiency and find ways to “do more with less.” We should admire those who dare to dream of a time when we no longer need fossil fuels. Nevertheless, we must not allow utopianism to delude us of the reality that we find ourselves today. The sheer magnitude of our reliance on fossil fuels does not afford us a practical opportunity to shed the burden of fossil fuels in the near-term. Often, all forms of so-called “fossil fuels” are lumped together and we fail to recognize that fossil fuels are not all created equal. We should not overlook the benefits of natural gas just because it is a “fossil fuel.”
Natural gas proffers several benefits. First, natural gas should be used as a “bridge fuel” to transition from current coal generated electricity to greater use of renewable electricity in the future. In conventional electricity generation, replacing coal with natural gas, reduces CO2 emissions 40-50 percent and reduces SO2, NOX, particulates and Mercury emissions 80-100 percent. Second, natural gas is an excellent resource for generating electricity as a “back-up” for electricity generated by wind and other renewables. Wind energy will continue to be one of the most effective vehicles by which to generate cleaner electricity. However, reliability of electricity supply is extremely important to utility companies, Public Utility Commissions and most importantly, consumers. Due to the necessity for electricity to be 99.9% reliable, wind alone cannot be used effectively to generate electricity without a practical back-up source of generating electricity. Natural gas is the ideal yokefellow to back-up wind and other renewables.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming technical and financial obstacles, a majority of Americans favor a vigorous transition towards a cleaner national energy portfolio and public opinion will continue to drive an increasing use of renewable energy. While the “environmentalists” continue to inspire us to a cleaner future, we should all recognize and rejoice that the United States has been endowed with an abundant and affordable source of clean-burning natural gas. Natural gas will be absolutely critical in facilitating our transition to an era of cleaner energy and that is why we should embrace natural gas as a tool to reduce emissions and advance the expanded use of renewable energy.
Please watch out for our next series of articles on EnergyPolicyUs.org.
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.org
March 4, 2015
Part 4 of 5 – COAL-CYCLING DILEMMA (Wind’s other Achilles Heel) & THE SUPPORTING ROLE OF NATURAL GAS
Based on the information outlined in Part 3 of this series, even the most fervent advocates of wind energy are destined to conclude that wind generated electricity cannot reliably supply 100 percent of the electricity required in the United States. Consequently, enlightened wind advocates must also conclude that wind generated electricity can only be effectively deployed when there is a reliable backup source of energy to generate electricity when wind cannot. Photovoltaic solar power is not an effective backup source for electrical generation due to its own inherent reliability issues. Using coal to back-up wind is also not a very effective due to a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “coal-cycling.”
Electricity must be produced and consumed contemporaneously. In other words, there is not currently a cost effective method for storing electricity on a large scale like crude oil, natural gas, coal, plutonium or water (for hydro-electricity). Therefore, the supply of electricity must always match demand on the electrical grid. As system demand for electricity constantly fluctuates, electric utilities must continuously adjust the production of electricity to match concurrent demand. When electricity generation increases from wind farms, electric utilities most commonly will choose to use the wind generated electricity in preference to other energy sources like natural gas, nuclear and coal. Typically, this choice is due to (i) contractual obligations to purchase wind generated electricity; and/or (ii) the utility companies’ needs and/or desires to use as much renewable energy as possible (in order to comply with Renewable Portfolio Standards). Accordingly, when wind generated electricity increases, electric utilities must curtail the generation of electricity from other sources (natural gas, nuclear, coal, etc.). Conversely, when the wind power subsides, the utilities must instantaneously increase the generation of electricity from other sources in order to continuously match supply and demand and insure reliable delivery of electricity to their customers. This drama transpires relentlessly in the control rooms of electric utilities across the country 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Utilizing coal can be quite effective in generating electricity when used in a steady state (as base load), similar to how diesel trucks run efficiently at a steady highway speed. However, diesel trucks perform far less efficiently in “stop-and-go” traffic. Likewise, coal-fired power plants do not perform efficiently in a volatile “stop-and-go” manner in order to accommodate the fluctuations in wind power. Frequently turning on and off coal-fired power plants and/or “ramping-up” and “ramping-down” such power plants to change electricity output (“coal-cycling”), can be very damaging to the equipment and expensive. Perhaps more significantly, every time that a coal-fired plant has to be ramped-up or ramped-down to adjust for variances in wind capacity, a spike in emissions results. The magnitude of the emission spikes resulting from coal-cycling depends on a plethora of factors. According to a recent study in Colorado, the emission spikes resulting from coal-cycling can be greater than the emission reductions created by the wind farms. In other words, when coal is used as a back-up for wind (as opposed to using coal as a base load), coal-cycling emission spikes often negate the perceived emission benefits resulting from wind generated electricity. Understandably, electric utilities have concluded that due to increased emissions resulting from coal-cycling, coal is not effective to use as a swing resource to generate electricity as a back-up for wind and other types of renewable energy.
REPLACING COAL WITH NATURAL GAS TO GENERATE ELECTRICITY
Source: America’s Natural Gas Alliance
Electric utilities have discovered that using natural gas is a simple, safe and cost effective solution to the coal-cycling dilemma. Natural gas can be easily ramped-up and ramped-down to support the use of wind without the unintended emission spikes and other consequences of coal-cycling. According to a recent report by the University of Colorado, replacing coal with natural gas in a conventional electrical generation applications, reduces CO2 emissions by 40-53 percent. Using natural gas instead of coal as a back-up for wind (thus eliminating coal-cycling emissions) would result in an even greater reduction of CO2 and other emissions. Many electric utilities already use natural gas as their principle back-up for wind generated electricity. Using natural gas as the primary backup source for electricity generation (i) is critical for the cost-effective and environmentally prudent use of wind and other types of renewable energy; and (ii) remains essential to facilitate further growth of renewable energy for electricity generation.
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.org
February 25, 2015
Part 3 of 5 – WIND’s “ACHILLES HEEL” & THE COST OF RELIABILITY
The allure of “clean, abundant, renewable and domestically produced” wind is intoxicating! Last week, Part 2 of this series examined the importance of reliability in the supply of electricity. American consumers and Public Utility Commissions expect and demand safety and reliability of the electricity supply above all other considerations. Regrettably, wind-generated electricity has one flaw that towers above all others, wind is unreliable! Although wind is an outstanding energy resource, it cannot be relied-up to provide electricity around the clock. Public utility commissioners and utility executives are committed to reliable delivery of electricity 24-7-365 and would be horrified to read news headlines about someone who froze to death in their home because there was no reliable electricity to operate their home heater. Few residential consumers are willing to operate their lights, appliances, heating and air conditioning only, if and when, the wind is blowing or the solar cells are functioning. For competitive reasons, businesses and industrial consumers also demand a high degree of reliability in their electricity supply. If utilities cannot assure reliable and cost competitive electricity for commerce and industry, commercial ventures and manufacturing jobs will gravitate to other parts of the United States or other parts of the world which can provide affordable and reliable energy. Accordingly, the paramount challenge is to develop methods of utilizing wind and other renewables without sacrificing the reliability of electricity supply.
Energy professionals generally acknowledge that utility scale wind farms typically produce electricity about 25-40 percent of the time. Some data imply that such robust operating efficiencies may actually be overstated. Although capacity factors periodically appear higher, a recent study in the United Kingdom revealed that on average, all of the wind farms on the UK grid in 2010 produced electricity only 22 percent of the time.
According to current U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics, the average capacity factor for U.S. utility scale wind farms during the 12-month period ending November 2014 was 33.9 percent. Thus, if U.S. wind farms produce electricity approximately 33 percent of the time, what could we do to insure the reliability of electricity for the remaining 67 percent of the time? Some nescient observers might suggest that for every wind farm constructed, we should construct two additional wind farms, naively calculating that if one wind farm can provide electricity 33 percent of the time, three wind farms could produce electricity 99 percent of the time.
There are several significant flaws in this analysis. Apart from the obvious fact that three redundant wind farms would cost three times as much, the afore-stated strategy also erroneously assumes that when the wind from one wind farm ceases, the wind would opportunely commence at another locale to power another wind farm. Unfortunately, mother wind is not that accommodating. Basic statistical modeling indicates that it would require approximately 6 redundant wind farms (depending on location) positioned in geographically diverse areas to provide the rated capability of a single wind farm with 90% percent reliability.
It is possible to integrate wind generated electricity into the electricity grid for intermittent use in a manner which is operationally efficient, financially sound and compatible with current utility rate structures. However, constructing and financing redundant wind farms (at a factor of 6X) in order to insure at least 90% percent reliability would be financially foolhardy. Furthermore, even if there were sufficient suitable sites in the United States to construct all of these redundant wind farms (and enough capital to build all of them), there is currently not sufficient transmission infrastructure to transport all of the electricity from the desolate windy places where the electricity could be generated to the distant urban consumers. Accordingly, it is entirely impractical and cost prohibitive to attempt to rely on wind to supply the entire demand for electricity in the United States.
Currently, wind accounts for approximately <5% of U. S. electricity generation. Some experts conservatively estimate that under ideal conditions, the United States could ultimately produce 20-25 percent of its total electricity from wind. Others optimistically estimate that the United States could ultimately generate more than 50 percent of its electricity from wind. Based on current projections about technology and wind resources, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that someday wind could ultimately produce enough electricity to meet 30-40 percent of the total U.S. demand for electricity. Using wind for intermittent production of electricity is an appropriate strategy and public policy. Nevertheless, we are forced to conclude that any long-term plan to increase the use of wind energy to produce electricity must have a complimentary contingency to provide reliable back-up sources for electricity generation. Part 4 of this series Coal-Cycling Dilemma & The Supporting Role of Natural Gas will appear March 4th on EnergyPolicyUs.org.
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.org February 18, 2015
Part 2 of 5 – CLEAN ELECTRICITY & THE RELIABILITY IMPERATIVE
Last week, Part 1 of this series examined why it is unlikely that we can eliminate the use of fossil fuels anytime soon. Notwithstanding the fact that fossil fuels will remain a critical component of the U. S. energy portfolio, our society is duty-bound to continue vigorously pursuing a cleaner energy future. “Clean” electricity is one of the cornerstones of the emerging “clean energy paradigm.” How to generate and deliver large volumes of clean, affordable, safe and reliable electricity is an epochal issue. In order to encourage innovation and progress in renewable energy use, many states have enacted mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards (sometimes referred to as Renewable Electricity Standards) which require electric utilities in such states to produce certain minimum amounts of electricity from renewable sources. Renewable Portfolio Standards were pioneered in Iowa, Minnesota and California and began to emerge from state legislatures by the mid-1990’s. Currently 29 states and the District of Columbia have adopted mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards and another 8 states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Goals. (Note: West Virginia has recently repealed its RPS)
In order to comply with these mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards and voluntary Renewable Portfolio Goals, it is necessary for electric utility companies to develop a growing portfolio of renewable energy including wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable resources. Electricity generated from wind is regarded by many as one of the most practical and cost effective methods for expanded use of renewable resources. In 2013, wind was used to generate 4.13% of the total electricity generated in the United States. Wind is certainly not immune from disamenities (incl. reliability, esthetics, Wind Turbine Syndrome, environmental concerns, etc.). Nevertheless, wind generated electricity will almost certainly remain one of the best options for expanding the use of renewable energy during the next decade.
In most situations, there is only a single electrical connection facilitating delivery of electricity into homes and businesses. Accordingly, utilities which physically deliver electricity directly to consumers have been designated as monopolies in most jurisdictions. In order to protect the public from the natural abuses of monopoly enterprises, electric utilities are customarily regulated by state public utility commissions (PUCs). Historically, PUCs have set rates and standards for electricity service provided to homes and businesses. PUCs have traditionally placed great emphasis on the safety and reliability of electricity delivered to the customers which are protected by their PUC oversight. In fact, the importance of safety and reliability to PUCs is difficult to overstate. Safety of electricity is paramount in all situations. Reliability of electricity is almost equally important and particularly important for many critical applications such as intensive care units, neo-natal facilities, air traffic control centers and other public safety institutions. Likewise, U. S. homeowners and business consumers have also traditionally placed a high-value on safety and reliability of electricity as well as it affordability; however, consumers increasingly expect their electricity to also be clean and environmentally responsible. As such, electric utilities are faced with the daunting (and often unappreciated) task of balancing environmental concerns with affordability of electricity without sacrificing safety or reliability(not to mention delivering a return on investment to their shareholders). Therefore, while we collectively pursue the holy grail of clean and affordable electricity, the electric utilities will be increasingly challenged to do so without sacrificing safety or reliability! Part 3 of this series Wind’s Achilles Heel & the Cost of Reliability will appear February 25th on EnergyPolicyUs.org.
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.org
February 11, 2015
Part 1 of 5 – FEEDING THE ENERGY BEAST & THE DELUSORY DEMISE OF FOSSIL FUELS
Regardless of where one stands in the existential debate over the continued use of fossil fuels, the fact still remains that the world runs on energy. A small minority of people opine for a return to a primitive past where energy is scarce. Many others are part of a ground-swell of support for “renewable” energy to replace fossil fuels. Some ascribe to the belief that fossil fuels can be replaced by renewable energy relatively easily and quickly if “just given a fair chance.” Some simply view the parlay as nothing more than a simple choice between using fossil fuels and not using fossil fuels. Notwithstanding the phantasm of a world devoid of fossil fuels, in reality, there is no so-called “choice.” At this moment in time, there is simply not a coherent and plausible means by which the United States (or the World) could totally eliminate the use of fossil fuels.
There is a strong statistical correlation between energy consumption and prosperity. Countries which use small amounts of energy are almost uniformly poor. Inversely, nations which consume copious amounts of energy are substantially wealthier. Likewise, there is a strong statistical correlation between energy consumption and the Human Development Index. The Human Development Index is “…..a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living.” Nations which use small amounts of energy universally score low on the Human Development Index. Countries which use large amounts of energy are clustered at the high end of the Human Development Index. During the next few decades, we can expect that the energy growth rate in developing nations will remain high. Conversely, over the past 45 years, the amount of energy needed per $ of Gross Domestic Product (“energy intensity”) has been decreasing modestly in Europe and North America. This is a positive and notable mega-trend worthy of sustaining; however, this energy-intensity trend, in and of itself, is not sufficient to fundamentally change the tight statistical correlation between energy consumption and wealth, nor is it likely that a reduction in energy intensity will significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption over the next decade.
The U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has released its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 (AEO2014). According to AEO2014, fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas & coal) accounted for 82 percent of total United States energy needs during 2012. The sheer magnitude of the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels makes it almost impossible to overstate the importance of fossil fuels to the current national and world economy. If fossil fuels were somehow eliminated without a safe, reliable and affordable alternative, it would be equally difficult to overstate the devastating impact on our quality of life and social institutions. The ensuing anarchy and national mayhem might resemble downtown New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During the next 25 years, the national and global appetite for energy will not abate. We are right to aspire to greater energy efficiency, lower energy intensity, and an expanded use of renewable energy. We can and should continue to invest a reasonable amount of human and financial capital in pursuit of the development of safe, reliable and affordable renewable energy; nevertheless, the titanic ship of fossil fuel consumption will take an agonizingly long time to arrest.
AEO2014 forecasts that total energy consumption in the United States will rise modestly during the next 25 years and that the percentage of energy provided by renewable resources in the United States will increase from 9 percent to 12 percent by 2040 (an increase of 33%). Put into perspective, increasing the use of renewable energy by the amount projected by AEO2014 would only reduce U. S. dependence on fossil fuels from 82 percent to 80 percent of total energy consumed by 2040. If EIA’s current projections are remotely accurate, we will certainly not enjoy the elimination of fossil fuels before mid-century.
EIA’s AEO2014 forecast is not welcome news for those who aspire to a future free of fossil fuels. Almost certainly, the United States’ development of renewable energy will exceed the AEO2014 forecast. In the spirit of youthful optimism, let’s indulge ourselves and speculate that somehow the United States could triple the percentage of renewable energy used in the United States over the next 25 years from 9 percent to 27 percent of total consumed energy (that increase would be 6 times greater than EIA’s current projection). By almost any measure, tripling the percentage of renewable energy used in the United States by 2040 would constitute a monumental accomplishment. Nevertheless, even if we could accomplish such a grand feat within the next 25 years, the United States would still need to use fossil fuels for an astonishing 65 percent1 of its total energy needs in 2040. Perhaps during the next 25 years, humankind will be blessed with the commercialization of nuclear fusion or benefit from other quantum leaps in battery technology or other energy technologies. We certainly have a profound duty to continue vigorously pursuing cleaner forms of energy for our children and grandchildren. We should honor those who seek to forge a cleaner energy future; however, it is not likely that we will eliminate fossil fuels within the next two decades. Part II of this series Reliability & The Clean Electricity Paradigm will appear February 18th on EnergyPolicyUs.org.
Note 1: Current renewables = 9% of total U.S. consumption; Renewable use by 2040 if current rate is tripled = 27% of total U.S. energy consumption; Theoretical renewables 27% + nuclear 8% = 35% by 2040; Remaining energy consumption attributable to fossil fuels = 65%
By Douglas C. Sandridge, EnergyPolicyUs.com
January 30, 2015
Natural gas is widely accepted as a safe and reliable form of energy which can be used directly (for heating homes, water heaters, dryers, stoves, etc.) or used to generate electricity. Due to its domestic abundance, natural gas is also very affordable in the United States; however, it may not be widely understood by the general public how effective natural gas can be, when used as a tool to reduce CO2 and other airborne emissions. On average, when used as an alternative to coal, natural gas serves to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately forty to fifty percent and reduces other harmful emissions 80-100 percent (i.e. NOX, SO2, particulates & mercury). Equally important, using natural gas as a back-up source for generating electricity is crucial for the effective use of renewables such as wind and solar.
Notwithstanding the seemingly favorable attributes of natural gas, there are still a plethora of critics who seek to immediately and completely eliminate the use of all fossil fuels, including natural gas. Although these fossil fuel detractors may be well intended, it seems that they may not fully grasp (i) the different environmental impacts of various types of fossil fuels; and (ii) the importance of natural gas as a bridge fuel to the future. There are promising emerging technologies which could eventually revolutionize the manner in which we use energy and the environmental impacts resulting from energy use. Nevertheless, there is currently no coherent plan or plausible pathway which would allow the United States (or the World) to totally eliminate the use of fossil fuels anytime soon. The inevitable transition away from fossil fuels has already begun; nevertheless, it will likely take decades before the transition is complete. In the meantime, does it make sense to “throw out the natural gas baby with the fossil fuel bath water?”
It is important to understand and appreciate the unique and critical role that natural gas will continue to play in facilitating a transition towards greater use of renewable energy. EnergyPolicyUs is presenting a five week series of appurtenant articles examining (i) why fossil fuels will not disappear in the foreseeable future; (ii) the importance of reliability in the supply of electricity; (iii) limitations of wind power; (iv) the “coal-cycling” dilemma; and (v) the critical role of natural gas in the expanded use of wind, solar and other renewables to generate electricity. Part I of the series Feeding the Energy Beast & the Delusory Demise of Fossil Fuels will appear February 11th on EnergyPolicyUs.org.