Earth Day is normally when we honor the headway made in advancing environmental and climate goals, while also reflecting on the challenges that remain before us. However, this year our society was caught up in a pandemic-induced economic downturn that has left Americans focused squarely on sensible preservation of ourselves, our families, and our way of life.
But this sobering reality also brings us together, calling on the people to adopt innovative approaches that will help us recover faster and achieve the goals we had set out for ourselves pre-crisis. One of these examples is the relationship between natural gas and renewable energy.
An International Energy Agency report published in February revealed that global emissions were unchanged in 2019, even as global economic growth nearly hit 3%. The switch from using coal to natural gas to generate electric power; the cost-effective adoption of wind, solar, and other renewables; and nuclear energy were among the reasons for the excellent news.
Forecasts mostly indicate that renewables are on the rise. In its latest long-term projections, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects that electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar will surpass nuclear and coal by 2021, and even exceed natural gas in 2045.
But limitations on renewables persist. They can power thousands of homes and businesses when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, but the grid needs other sources of power that are not only uninterrupted but also cost-competitive. Technologies for storing energy generated by wind and solar are not ready for deployment on a large enough scale to replace existing baseload power generating sources. It could be decades before storage is sufficiently cost-effective to make traditional energy sources obsolete.
Therefore, as policymakers, energy companies, and innovators work to solidify the expanded role for renewables in the future, natural gas represents a foundational backstop and transition fuel to the further use of renewables. The EIA predicts utility companies will continue to take advantage of lower prices for natural gas at least through 2050, enhancing this industry’s contribution to the U.S. economy. The fact is renewables need natural gas for backup—or “load-following”—providing the rapid backup and reliability that those intermittent sources require and electricity consumers demand.
Also, the increased use of natural gas is playing an indispensable role in reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. In the U.S., newly plentiful and inexpensive natural gas has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 28% since 2005. At the same time, many in the gas industry—and outside as well—recognize that more can be done to reduce the flaring of natural gas associated with oil production and methane leaks. Reducing these emissions can strengthen the case for gas as a transition fuel.
The transition to natural gas is a global movement as well. Reports estimate China has bought nearly half of the new global supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from 2016 to 2018. It appears that China, like the U.S., sees no choice but to transition from current fuels, such as coal. From 2015 to 2018, 80% of growth in Chinese energy demand was for natural gas. Caution is in order here because of the uncertain impact of the coronavirus on Chinese economic growth prospects.
Given growing U.S. and global demand—and the need to provide power to more than 1 billion people around the world who still don’t have access to electricity—it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to halt fracking and sideline natural gas. Voters support greener energy policy, but they also care about the economic effects of such systems. Especially in light of this global pandemic that has left many Americans struggling to make ends meet, let alone afford their energy bills.
We still have to keep the lights on and fuel a growing economy. One analysis outlines the potential economic consequences for American families and businesses if we were to abandon natural gas procurement known as hydraulic fracturing, concluding that the U.S. would lose approximately 7.5 million jobs and $7.1 trillion in cumulative gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030. Not to mention, Americans, on average, would see an increase of $618 per year in household energy costs—including higher costs for gasoline, residential natural gas for heating, electricity, and heating oil. The economics notwithstanding, there is an essential case for natural gas’s role in curbing overall carbon emissions as a source for generating electric power.
Now is the time to pursue what is promising, but not forsake what is working. We should make sure to embrace natural gas and renewables as highly complementary, and celebrate these two necessary energy solutions that will help us meet the goals of cutting emissions while ensuring reliable and affordable electric power for American consumers.
—Richard D. Kauzlarich is a former U.S. ambassador and the co-director of the Center for Energy Science and Policy at George Mason University.