Game changer 5: RFK, Jr. on “How to end Americas deadly coal addiction … practically overnight” thanks to “a revolution in natural gas production”

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"Game changer 5: RFK, Jr. on “How to end Americas deadly coal addiction … practically overnight” thanks to “a revolution in natural gas production”"

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. , imageConverting rapidly from coal-generated energy to gas is President Barack Obama’s most obvious first step towards saving our planet and jump-starting our economy. A revolution in natural gas production over the past two years has left America awash with natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight – and without the expense of building new power plants.

So writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, in the Financial Times.

RFK Jr. echoes many key points of my series on gas.  There appears to be a lot more natural gas than previously thought (Part 1) and therefore unconventional gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet (Part 2), which is great for low-cost climate action, bad for coal (Part 3).  And it always bears repeating, as Part 3 discusses, that natural gas is the critical low-carbon “firming” resource that can enable deep penetration of both windpower and concentrated solar thermal power.

Interestingly, the investment site Motley Fool writes about RFK’s article:

[Note:  Do not consider this link an endorsement of their stock picks.]

I’ve been touting the success of [Exploration and Production companies]  in tackling unconventional gas resources on this site since 2007, I think the impact of shale plays on America’s energy supply has only more recently come to be appreciated. It’s wonderful to see a bona fide environmentalist like RFK Jr. lend his support to natural gas as an abundant and vastly cleaner alternative to coal. With luck, we will see other public figures join him in this call.

Now if the natural gas industry only learned to lobby as effectively as Peabody Energy and the rest of the coal crew, we could see some serious climate progress in relatively short order.

Precisely (see Tim Wirth delivers “extreme words” to natural gas execs: “You don’t have the right to sit back and do nothing” about climate change. “We are in very deep trouble, the edge of catastrophe, and you can help.” (Part 4)

Here are some comments on the rest of the RFK, Jr. piece:

Whatever the slick campaign financed by the powerful coal barons might claim, coal is neither cheap nor clean. Ozone and particulates from coal plants kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and cause widespread illnesses and disease. Acid rain has destroyed millions of acres of valuable forests and sterilised one in five Adirondack lakes. Neurotoxic mercury raining from these plants has contaminated fish in every state and poisons over a million American women and children annually. Coal industry strip mines have already destroyed 500 mountains in Appalachia, buried 2,000 miles of rivers and streams and will soon have flattened an area the size of Delaware. Finally, coal, which supplies 46 per cent of our electric power, is the most important source of America’s greenhouse gases.

Actually, petroleum is a bigger source of U.S. GHGs, but Obama has already begun a major effort to reduce transportation-related GHGs, and far more low-carbon substitutes for coal exist.

America’s cornucopia of renewables and the recent maturation of solar, geothermal and wind technologies will allow us to meet most of our energy needs with clean, cheap, green power. In the short term, natural gas is an obvious bridge fuel to the “new” energy economy.

Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the US, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century. Of the 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity currently needed to meet national energy demand, 336 are coal-fired. Surprisingly, America has more gas generation capacity – 450 gigawatts – than it does for coal.

However, public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas. For that reason, high-efficiency gas plants are in operation only 36 per cent of the time. By changing the dispatch rule nationally to require that whenever coal and gas plants are competing head-to-head, gas generation must be utilised first, we could quickly reduce coal generation and achieve massive emissions reductions.

In an instant, this simple change could eliminate three-quarters of America’s coal-burning generators and save a fortune in energy costs. Around 920 US coal plants – 78 per cent of the total – are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amidst dense populations and in poor neighbourhoods to lethal effect.

Well, it wouldn’t happen in an instant — you need to bring on the natural gas supply while pushing very hard on natural gas efficiency.  The good news is that Waxman-Markey would help do this in a variety of ways.

The carbon price would switch the dispatch order (which I discussed at length here).  I confirmed this with a leading expert on electric generation.  Coal is dispatched first wherever it is cheaper — even by a little.  Also, coal producers have been willing to sign long-term contracts, which natural gas producers are only now beginning to contemplate.  Natural gas providers need to demonstrate that after a decade of multiple major price spikes, they can guarantee a long-term moderate and stable price, which will enable utilities to embrace the fuel with confidence.

The climate bill has massive amounts of direct natural gas efficiency as well as general energy efficiency measures, both of which together will free up a great deal of natural gas for power generation (see The triumph of energy efficiency: Waxman-Markey could save $3,900 per household and create 650,000 jobs by 2030).

These ancient plants burn 20 per cent more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60 to 75 per cent less fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas plants. They account for only 21 per cent of America’s electric power but almost half the sector’s emissions. Properly assessed, the costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair of these antiquated facilities make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants. However, irrational energy sector pricing structures make it possible for many plant operators to pass those costs to the public and make choices based exclusively on fuel costs, which in the case of coal appear deceptively cheap because of massive subsidies.

Mothballing or throttling back these plants would mean huge savings to the public and eliminate the need for more than 350m tons of coal, including all 30m tons harvested through mountain-top removal. Their closure would reduce US mercury emissions by 20-25 per cent, dramatically cut deadly particulate matter and the pollutants that cause acid rain, and slash America’s CO2 from power plants by 20 per cent – an amount greater than the entire reduction envisaged in the first years of the pending climate change legislation at a fraction of the cost.

To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20 per cent of their fuel. Such co-firing dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and its extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can have serious water, land use and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts can be mitigated by careful regulation and are dwarfed by the disaster of coal.

Let’s do it!

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42 Responses to Game changer 5: RFK, Jr. on “How to end Americas deadly coal addiction … practically overnight” thanks to “a revolution in natural gas production”

  1. vakibs says:

    I am rubbing my eyes. Is this really true that this so-called Green evangelist has publicly outed himself as a fossil-fuel lover?

  2. Gary Thompson says:

    Great news. Pelosi says natural gas is not a fossil fuel. My dad converted a pick-up truck to propane since we had a new large tractor on the same. It has less torque and the crankcase oil is clean for years. A secondary product of Natural Gas is liquids from which we make gasolene and other products. A lot of wells also produce oil.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Numbers, Please

    [JR: That is what links are for. But in short, natural gas in a modern, already-built combined cycle turbine has maybe 60% lower CO2 emissions per kWh than most of the current coal plants whose power it would displace.]

    I can understand and support natural gas as an improvement over coal (if that’s the case; I haven’t run those particular numbers), as a gap-filling thing, and as a quick transition to much cleaner sources that are actually NOT hydrocarbons and ARE actually renewables.

    BUT, we need (in our efforts) to achieve a more clear understanding of the solutions in context, and the role that each should play. We shouldn’t just continue and fall into the poor practices practiced by those who don’t share numbers and who seem to forget to identify what energy sources create CO2 and what sources don’t. For example, ExxonMobil has ads that “imply” that natural gas is clean AND that even leave the impression (for those who don’t know otherwise) that natural gas doesn’t itself generate CO2. Natural gas is still a mixture of hydrocarbons, we know, but too many people don’t.

    So, I don’t have time to do the numbers today, but I do have some to list. My request is this: When we cover these things and say what should be supported, and what shouldn’t, can we always make clear (on an easily understandable basis) the amounts of CO2 generated, specifically, by the several options being considered; AND can we make triply clear whether something is being suggested as a short transition solution or whether it is being suggested as a genuine alternative to solar or wind or geothermal or nuclear energy? We need to clarify time-frames, roles, magnitudes (in the solution), and relative amounts of CO2 per unit of energy produced. Please.

    One of the things that frustrates me with communications from the denialists and delayers is that they either assume that we are all chemists OR they hope that we can’t really understand what they’re talking about. Let’s not do the same thing. Natural gas generates CO2. So, let’s always keep in mind how much, and etc.

    So, here are some numbers (not crunched, and not put on very comparable terms, but at least for people to play with) . . .

    The McKinsey report says that 1,000 ft3 (cubic feet) of natural gas, on average, generates about 54.7 kilograms of CO2 and its “equivalents”.

    The McKinsey report also says that the following amounts and types of coal generate (approximately) the following amounts of CO2:

    1 short ton of bituminous coal generates 2,237 kilograms of CO2/equivalent.

    1 short ton of subbituminous coal generates 1,685 kilograms of CO2/equivalent.

    1 short ton of lignite coal generates 1,266 kilograms of CO2/equivalent.

    It also says that, on average (this depends on the energy sources used, of course), the generation of 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. produces roughly 0.61 kilograms of CO2/equivalent.

    Now, from different sources, and as averages and “typicals”, we have the following . . .

    It’s typical (I’m told) that burning a million BTUs of natural gas generates about 117 pounds of CO2. And, a nominal “heat rate” for a reasonably modern natural gas facility might be between about 6,900 BTU per kW-hr and 7,100 BTU per kW-hr. (That’s the amount of natural gas you need to burn in order to generate a kW-hr of electricity.)

    If you use some of these numbers and do a quick rough calculation, you get a result that a good, fairly modern natural gas plant might generate about 0.37 kilograms of CO2 per kW-hr of electricity generated. That’s better than the nationwide average (for electricity) from the McKinsey report, of 0.61 kilograms per kW-hr of electricity. But, as you can see, it’s NOT Heaven, and it’s not great as an ultimate solution. And, even that assumes that the natural gas is all used in new plants, and many old plants are much less efficient.

    I’m not an up-to-date expert on this part of the matter, and these are quick calculations, so they’re probably off somewhat. But, my main point is this: Natural gas generates CO2. So, as we have these dialogues, and as the press covers this stuff, we really MUST (in my view) make clear how much CO2 each source generates, AND what role is being suggested for each source, i.e., a transitional role, or an ultimate role.

    OK, I’m all numbered-out for today.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  4. MarkB says:

    From Game Changer 3:

    “Natural gas power plants are load-following power plants, which can shut down when the solar or wind resources are available. This is not true for nuclear or coal power plants, which are designed to run all the time. Thus, an electric grid comprised more heavily of natural gas load-following power plants is capable of adding a higher proportion of electricity generated by the wind and the sun.

    On the supply side, the ability of natural gas power plants to ramp up quickly to provide power when needed — e.g. when the wind is not blowing — make them an essential part of an electric grid that uses a high percentage of renewable energy.”

    I’d personally like to read more about this. Are there caveats to this? It certainly seems like natural gas is ideal as a transitionary electricity source.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Did Pelosi actually say that natural gas is not a fossil fuel? IF so, somebody better correct her. Check out my earlier post.

  6. Jonah says:

    Your links to Part 1 and Part 2 are broken :”(

  7. Jonah says:

    And now they’re fixed. Sorry for the noise.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    OT, but Krugman gives our own Joe Romm a hat tip in his blog post supporting cap and trade, specifically allaying fears of speculation in a CO2 trading market.

    On topic, if the electric power industry gets rational (or at least less anti-social) and replaces coal with efficient gas (and wind and solar), it will drive the price of CO2 credits to zero through about 2045.

    I love coal, and I love coal country. Leave the coal in the ground. (Then leave the oil in the ground. Then leave the gas in the ground.)

  9. EricG says:

    Well,, this is nice. But if RFK Jr. and his family would get on board with Cape Wind, we’d have another 468 MW of really clean generation.

  10. Bill Woods says:

    Jeff Huggins: Did Pelosi actually say that natural gas is not a fossil fuel? IF so, somebody better correct her. Check out my earlier post.

    To add to the boggle, apparently the state of Connecticut considers natural gas to be renewable.
    http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/fuel-cells-as-renewable-power/

  11. EricG says:

    Methane, the largest component of natural gas, is produced all the time through anaerobic digestion. We harvest it from landfills and agricultural waste. In that sense, it is a renewable fuel. Maybe that’s what she was referring to.

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    EricG (#10), I understand your point, and thanks. She may have meant that, although I often wonder how much many folks really know about this stuff (energy, chemistry, etc.). In any case, my large hunch is that the relative amount of gas that comes from landfills and ag waste, through our processes, that we use purposefully for energy, is much less (by far) than the amount produced from wells and (to a degree) in refineries.

    But this serves as a good example. Even though these things are a bit more complex than the idea of “boy meets girl”, nevertheless, if people really know what they are talking about, it’s not really that hard to make it clear. In other words, people should provide the basic numbers if they are arguing that natural gas is better than coal, not just in terms of some macro “X% less” number, but also in terms of the actual amount of CO2 generated by the items being compared. And, people should communicate what ROLE their suggested energy source would play: Short-term transition; Ultimate solution; Renewable or Nonrenewable; and so forth. And, to your point, if someone is gonna call natural gas “renewable”, they should clearly point out that most natural gas is not renewable, but that generation from the sources you mention is, or can be considered that way.

    The reason I’m looking for clear communication is that so much of the problem stems from public misunderstanding and lack of clear communication. We let advertisers and certain interest groups get away with “murder”, figuratively speaking, when it comes to killing clarity and truth. I think we need to set higher standards and clearly communicate what we are talking about, each time. (I mean when it comes to making speeches and writing articles and blog features and things like that. I don’t mean that each small blog comment should write the whole history of the universe, of course.)

    Thanks for the comment.

    Jeff

  13. Will says:

    “Actually, petroleum is a bigger source of U.S. GHGs…”

    What? I thought coal was responsible for around 35% US GHG’s and petroleum was 20%? Am I completely missing something here…it has always been my understanding that coal is the #1 emitter?

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    Will: When all else fails, consult the Energy Geek Bible, a.k.a. the US DOE Annual Energy Review. Table 12.3 (http://www.eia.doe.gov/aer/txt/ptb1203.html) says in 2007 in the US, CO2 emissions were:

    Petroleum: 2,579 million metric tons (43%)
    NG: 1,237 (20%)
    Coal: 2,159 (36%)
    (Plus a few tiny additions from other sources)
    Grand total: 5,990

  15. Will says:

    Thanks Lou…I’m shocked I didn’t already know that though…

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    Will and Lou: Thanks! I’m concerned about both (oil and coal), of course, but I haven’t paid much recent attention to the question of who’s the biggest. Yet, for some reason, I also had the “gut feeling” that coal is larger. Maybe that’s because one industry is doing a better disinformation job than the other, or perhaps it’s because coal just seems dirty, or perhaps it’s because we humans don’t like to think of something as a problem that we see so directly when we fill up our cars. In any case, I think it’s an important clarification that petroleum is actually larger, and that we can’t “forget” about that BIG part of the problem as people focus on coal.

    Anyhow, thanks for the info and table.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  17. Rod Adams says:

    It is rather amusing to think that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. believes that the natural gas industry is somehow less talented and experienced at effective lobbying than Peabody Energy.

    [JR: He didn't write that. You misread the piece. That said, the natural gas lobby is very fragmented and very lame.]

    In most cases, gas and oil production require skill sets at all levels that are very similar. Not surprisingly, some of the biggest producers of “natural” (what a great marketing term) gas are multinational petroleum companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Amerada Hess, BP, and Conoco-Phillips.

    See http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/finance/mergers/upstream.pdf for an interesting historical graphic about the consolidation of what used to be a rather fragmented gas and oil industry.

    How many of those household names have you seen in the past week on TV, billboards, service stations, and city buses? If you live or work in DC, which happens to be full of politicians, you will be very familiar with the signs that cover most of the length of the buses that say “Powered by Clean Natural Gas”.

    I understand the combustion chemistry and recognize that natural gas is quite a bit cleaner than coal on a per unit heat output basis. (For each unit of heat, it produces approximately 60% of the CO2 as coal does and almost no fly ash, mercury, SOx, NOx, or trace heavy metals.) I also am familiar with the thermodynamics and know that combined cycle gas turbines cannot operate on a solid, ash-heavy fuel like coal, but gas and distillate oil work very well for these machines. That is important because the very best CCGT can reach almost 60% thermal efficiencies, compared to about 33% for a conventional Rankine cycle steam turbine.

    Of course, all that excitement about the abundant gas will dissipate if the consumption rate increases very much. Based on recent testimony by DuPont and Dow Chemical, any significant increase in demand for gas will probably push them out of the market for using gas as a raw material, potentially forcing them to move their factories and jobs to an area where gas is more readily available at a far lower cost. Increased gas prices also hit consumers who use gas for cooking, home heating, or hot water heaters.

    All in all, I wonder why Kennedy is so excited about recommending an action where the almost inevitable result of following his prescription would be enough increase in demand for gas to cause a steep price increase and a rapid increase in the margins and net profits for the gas suppliers. See the first paragraph if you want that list of beneficiaries again.

    Are those the companies whose water you want to carry? That is what you will be doing if you push for a large shift from coal to gas.

    FYI – there is a zero emission alternative fuel that is just as reliable as coal, costs about 1/3 as much per unit heat and has no other competing uses.

    [JR: Yes, it's called energy efficiency. RFK supports that, too!]

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

  18. David B. Benson says:

    My power company just recduced the price of so-called natural gas and state they hope to do it again in September.

  19. James Thomson the fourth says:

    If NG displaces coal for economic reasons then W-M may well be rendered irrelevant for 20 or 30 years. In that case maybe the US should go back to the drawing board and redraft legislation which takes into account the CO2 savings of NG and rebaselines the targets nearer to European levels.

    All in all I’m not that happy about putting off the whole problem for a few decades just because a cleaner fossil fuel turned up. It’s exactly what the UK did when North Sea gas kicked in – Thatcher closed all the coal mines, broke the mining unions and the UK revelled in what turned out to be a short term bonanza of cheap gas. Now we are stuck with the North Sea in double-digit depletion and expensive gas piped or shipped in from ever further away.

    How much better it would have been to have invested in clean energy back in the 80′s and saved the gas for something more important – such as fertiliser manufacture.

  20. Bob Wright says:

    Qualitatively, Natural Gas has a molecular Hydrogen to Carbon ratio of almost 4:1. Bituminouus coal is around 1:1, so a lot more energy from NG is from making H2O instead of CO2.

    From http://www.naturalgas.com, Coal = 208,000 lb CO2/ billion btu, NG is 117,000 lb/bbtu. Using Lou’s table,substituting NG 100% for coal results in 2159 mt x 117/208 = 1215 mt.

    Lou’s table then becomes:
    Petroleum: 2579
    NG: 1237 + 1215 = 2452
    Coal: 0
    Other: 15
    Total: 5046

    (5990-5046)/5990 = 15.8% “instant” reduction of CO2 emissions for same energy output. That would be a good start.

  21. Erik S.G. says:

    1. I have yet to see anything comparing full life-cycle climate costs of natural gas versus coal. The talking point is that natural gas combustion emits about half as much CO2e as coal, but this factoid too conveniently ignores the exploration, production, processing, transmission, and distribution of natural gas which occur prior to the point of combustion. It is therefore, at best, misleading.

    [JR: Don't forget the life-cycle emissions of coal! It doesn't appear magically either. In fact, as I said, we're talking a 60% emissions drop -- and we don't need a big increase in gas, by the way.]

    On this point, the evidence — e.g., state level greenhouse gas inventories in natural gas producing states (which I’ve posted in prior comments on this “Gamechanger series”) — indicates that the upstream and midstream elements of the natural gas industry are very dirty, with leaks of methane, which is 25X as potent as CO2, at nearly every point. Moreover, most of these emissions are disaggregated in the thousands of compressor stations, wells, pipelines, valves, etc. that may not be captured beneath cap & trade policies, at least as presently proposed. Investment in efficiency measures may help, but these are already under-deployed in the upstream/midstream natural gas industry which too often finds it more profitable to invest in new leases or new production fields.

    Bottom line, if you’re going to promote another fossil fuel — which, at the end of the day, is a dirty fuel — as a transition/brige measure, then you carry a heavy burden to substantiate your claim that natural gas, as you see it used, would in fact be far better than coal. None of your posts, with respect, have yet to do that.

    [JR: No heavy burden. I think the case has been made. Do you live a life free of fossil fuels? No. So we don't have to go to 0 tomorrow.]

    2. The natural gas industry may indeed be “fragmented and lame” in the context of climate policy, but they are quite powerful at the state level, and you’d have to be naive to think that they won’t at some juncture organize to exploit and take political advantage of the positions of folks like, unfortunately, RFK Jr.(and yourself). Moreover, they’ve already been quite effective at the federal level getting sweetheart exemptions from the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act. Furthermore, I have little doubt that they’ll beginning to heavily “invest” in democratic politicians who will feel increasingly “loyal” to this energy sector.

    3. The push for natural gas seems to be driven by a fixation on stopping coal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting off coal. But let’s not supplant a major problem with another major problem. Frankly, the numerous posts on natural gas on this site, despite framed in the context of “transition” and “bridge” actually seem to posit natural gas as a solution. And even if not, the natural gas industry is not going to content itself to a limited 20-30 year role. They’ll want a firm foothold, replete with tax benefits, environmental rollbacks to “lower barriers to production,” etc.

    4. I too often see posts suggesting that coal production — e.g., from mountaintop mining — has far more devastating effects than natural gas production. But I think people have been lulled into complacency by ads showing a innocent well amidst a green field with frolicking kids or animals. The reality is far different than the propaganda. All fossil fuel production — whether coal, oil, or natural gas — causes substantial and often unacceptable impacts to clean water, wildlife, air quality, public health, and our communities. And the natural gas industry doesn’t have the best track record on this front, having pushed, for years, to develop resources in some of our country’s most special, most sensitive lands — public and private — and often trampling the rights of farmers, ranchers, and communities in the process.

    So let’s be careful before proselytizing the use of natural gas.

    Respectfully,
    Erik S.G.

    [JR: Sorry, nothing's worse than coal. Not even close.]

  22. Jeff Huggins says:

    So Let’s See

    So, if natural gas generates about 60% as much CO2 as coal generates, per unit of electricity produced, and since natural gas (for the most part) is not a renewable — except for the volumes that are generated from waste and agricultural uses — and since the price of natural gas is very dependent on demand, let’s see, might we expect the following . . .

    In about X or Y years, as electricity demand increases, we’ll have the same problem (similar volume of CO2 generated) that we have now. Bravo?!

    We’ll spend all sorts of money on building up-to-date natural gas plants, and be stuck with them for thirty or forty years, that we could otherwise be spending on solar thermal plants, wind farms, geothermal plants, and etc.

    Prices will go way up, and the funds will mainly go to the natural gas owners and to the oil/gas companies, rather than to construction of renewable energy plants or to substantial renewable energy R&D.

    Much of the money will end up going to the very same companies that don’t want to address the climate change matter and, instead, want to protect their investments in oil and, you guessed it, gas.

    As natural gas becomes harder and harder to get (for the most part, it’s not a renewable), and as prices go up, and as electricity demand goes up, so as our CO2 emissions remain way too high, we’ll have to do another changeover (energy transition) all over again.

    Gimme a break. Pretty soon, we’re gonna have to decide whether we humans have “what it takes” to make responsible decisions with the future in mind.

    Would someone please clarify for me, what is the actual STRATEGY and VISION here on this natural gas stuff? All things considered, please explain why it makes sense, relative to other very real, renewable, and near-zero-CO2 options?

    I just don’t get it. Yes, for a quick transition, in some cases, OK. It’s better than coal, moderately. But, it’s not the lasting solution. Indeed, 60% of the CO2 is barely a solution at all, once you consider that electricity demand is going to go up.

    And, we have to also consider (very importantly) the precedent and credibility and transferability aspects of the solutions we commit to. If we replace much of our coal with natural gas (whoopie!), then what will that say to China, and how is that gonna help China, and how is that gonna help as demand grows? On the other hand, if we commit to solar and wind and geothermal and other existing or new RENEWABLE approaches, and optimize technology for those, then we’ll have something to talk about and share.

    Please explain what I’m missing here?

    Be Well,

    Jeff

    [JR: You might try reading Part 2. That's what you're missing.

    You are missing the context of the climate and clean energy bill, which will all but stop electricity demand from rising if passed in its current form. Gas is just part of the strategy, with efficiency and conservation and wind and CSP and PV and geothermal and so on.]

  23. Mike#22 says:

    “Please explain what I’m missing here?”

    We need dispatchable baseload through the next 20 years, at least. NG is better than coal.

  24. Will says:

    It is interesting that natural gas accounts for 20% of US fossil fuel GHG emissions, yet it produces only 20% of our electricity. Coal accounts for 36% of fossil fuel GHG, and produces 46% of our electricity. Yet natural gas is supposed to be 50% cleaner than coal? Somewhere along the line those numbers must be wrong because it suggests coal provides more electricity per unit of GHG than NG, which we know is incorrect. I believe these things are important to clear up.

  25. Jeff Huggins says:

    Change of Mind?

    After reading Erik’s comment (#19), and considering the points I raised in my comment (#20), and given the 60% or 50% thing (which, if Erik is correct, is not an “all-in” statistic, and I think he’s right), this has all got me wondering . . .

    Unless someone can explain what I’m “missing”, or what Erik is “missing”, it seems to me that this might be one of those situations where a “change of mind” is warranted on the part of ClimateProgress?

    I’m not here, or spending my time on the global warming problem, because I’d like us to adopt a short-sighted, partial, ultimately ineffective solution, one that leaves society saying twenty years from now, “well what if we just let the temperature increase another few degrees, and why don’t we send those metal flakes into the air and try to geoengineer our way out of this after all?” That sort of thinking is not what I’m into.

    We have the ability to face and genuinely address the problem, and if sites like this aren’t going to push us (all the way) to do that, then what? So, although I may be missing something, I’d rather see ClimateProgress change its stance on natural gas, IF that’s a better way to go, then just stick with the stance out of “persistence”.

    But, that’s just me.

    Yet, as an observation: Today seems to have been a natural gas and geoengineering day. Those “solutions” are not at all inspiring to me. Not at all. I can’t reconcile them with my view of the decisions (both intellectual and ethical) that I think we humans should be capable of making. Call me an idealist?

    Be Well,

    Jeff

    [JR: Well, it's hard to mistake me for a supporter of geo-engineering. But news is news.

    And it's hard to mistake me for someone who doesn't want to push renewables beyond what 99% of people do (see here).

    But natural gas is a key bridge fuel through 2030 and an enabler of deep renewable penetration. But I doubt we'll be using much MORE in 2020. I expect to do enough efficiency to save the amount needed to cut coal use sharply. Guess I'll have to blog on that.]

  26. Mike#22 says:

    (sorry, that should read “fossil fuel baseload”)

  27. Jeff Huggins says:

    Hhhmm. Punting!

    I must apologize. I’ve re-read the original post, and I’ll “punt” and “defer” to those who have done much more thinking and analysis on this one than I have.

    If this is all about a quick and effective transition, and if we communicate it that way, and if it’s structured (policy-wise) that way, and if it plays that role in the grand plan, then great (if the numbers and thinking are correct, of course). My concern is this: It shouldn’t be sold as an ultimate long-term solution, of course, and it should be implemented in such a way that FITS WITH this short-term transition role. We shouldn’t create yet another entrenched industry that will, in X years when it’s time to complete the full transition to solar and so forth, fight back hard with misinformation and lobbying to resist positive change. So, if we ADOPT it as a transition, and DO it as a transition, and KNOW that it’s a transition, then fine.

    Sorry for my concern: I’m just doubtful or skeptical about anything that still has boatloads of Carbon in it.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  28. Erik Organic says:

    Interesting post on CNG conversions:

    “The cost of the conversion kits are actually relatively inexpensive. If there was a sensible licensing fee (or no fee) the cost for the work could be just a few hundred dollars.”

    http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2009/07/behind-costs-of-cng-conversions.html

  29. Mark Shapiro says:

    Will: EIA has the answer for you. It’s in the gorgeous PECSS diagram (someone calls it PECSS-zilla).

    In a nutshell: 90% of coal goes to electricity, only 29% of gas goes to electricity, the rest to homes, business, factories.

    Check it out! http://www.eia.doe.gov/aer/pecss_diagram.html

  30. Mark Shapiro says:

    Rod, Erik, Jeff:

    Part of the answer to your well-founded skepticisms is here (from RFK above):
    Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the US, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century. Of the 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity currently needed to meet national energy demand, 336 are coal-fired. Surprisingly, America has more gas generation capacity – 450 gigawatts – than it does for coal.

    However, public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas. For that reason, high-efficiency gas plants are in operation only 36 per cent of the time. By changing the dispatch rule nationally to require that whenever coal and gas plants are competing head-to-head, gas generation must be utilised first, we could quickly reduce coal generation and achieve massive emissions reductions.

    In an instant, this simple change could eliminate three-quarters of America’s coal-burning generators and save a fortune in energy costs. Around 920 US coal plants – 78 per cent of the total – are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amidst dense populations and in poor neighbourhoods to lethal effect.

    Well, it wouldn’t happen in an instant — you need to bring on the natural gas supply while pushing very hard on natural gas efficiency. The good news is that Waxman-Markey would help do this in a variety of ways.

    The carbon price would switch the dispatch order (which I discussed at length here). I confirmed this with a leading expert on electric generation. Coal is dispatched first wherever it is cheaper — even by a little. Also, coal producers have been willing to sign long-term contracts, which natural gas producers are only now beginning to contemplate.

  31. paulm says:

    Time to buy NG shares!

  32. Mike#22 says:

    Two areas I did not see discussed above.

    The natural gas infrastucture has large storage facilities built in already. Add to that the idea that a developed NG well is also a storage mechanism, in that there is little post extraction processing necessary, and we have a truly resilient transitional energy supply. The more dispatchable NG baseload there is, backed by huge storage, the more penetration wind can make into the grid. 40% anyone? Wind is certainly the cheapest renewable out there. Add in 10 or 20 million plug ins each storing 10 kwh…We could be there in ten years or less. Think of all those good American jobs.

    Anyplace NG is burned to make heat and hot water, we need to put in cogeneration. 67 million households heat with NG. 67 million cogeneration units (more good jobs) would make quite a dent in the coal fired electricity we need to stop. Since the cogeneration units would be all new high efficiency designs of about 93%, and the units being replaced average about 83%, the net gas use per household stays the same (or until the house gets upgraded, when the gas usage would drop). At about 70 million btus NG per household, and turning 10% of that into kwhs, that is 2000 kwh per household, 134 billion kwhs nationally.

    [JR: I"ll do another cogen piece shortly.]

  33. Will says:

    Mark, you rock, thank you. My world was spinning for a second. I guess I need to check out this EIA, I need to get in the game.

  34. Rockfish says:

    “Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the US, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century.”

    Sorry, but that sounds to me an awful lot like the voice-over of a coal or oil industry commercial telling how “recent discoveries” and “advanced extraction methods” mean a tiny tiny little bit of offshore drilling or strip mining will be the answer to our energy needs.

    And why is it that NG suppliers have never been able to provide long term price stability? Why is there now a “glut” when a couple of years ago there was a price spike?

    The “dispatch order” is mandated by regulators, I assume, to force utilities to use the cheapest fuel first and not gouge their customers on price. So, all the free carbon permits being given away by WM may make coal more expensive in 5 or 10 years, but the massive demand increases proposed for NG will drive prices up and soon make coal cheaper again anyway.

    Then there is the dilemma of sunk costs. Having converted all our power plants to NG, there will be great pressure to extract more, and permit ever greater environmental havoc in doing so, because we have made massive investments in that fuel. You claim that coal can be easily converted to gas, but what can gas be easily converted to? Not wind, solar or geothermal.

    Again, I think this is selling our souls to the devil for a few tons of CO2 reduction.

  35. Ari says:

    RFK Jr. wrote at the end of his article “its extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can have serious water, land use and wildlife impacts”. Are there currently well-managed gas extraction facilities? The FRAC bill, S. 1215, which would require oil and gas companies to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works. How can water resources be protected and what else would need to be done to protect them?

  36. Mark Shapiro says:

    Will – EIA is terrific.

    Rockfish – your skepticism is valuable, and provides more impetus to develop the cleanest energies: efficiency, wind, solar, etc. Changing the “dispatch order” requires no capital cost. The goal simply remains shutting down coal plants as quickly as possible. Then shut down oil use and production. Then natural gas.

  37. David B. Benson says:

    Erik Organic (28) — That license fee is simply outrageous!

  38. Rod Adams says:

    @Mark Shapiro:

    You wrote:

    “Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the US, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century. Of the 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity currently needed to meet national energy demand, 336 are coal-fired. Surprisingly, America has more gas generation capacity – 450 gigawatts – than it does for coal.

    However, public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas.”

    There are several challenges.

    1. Recognition of the existence of “vast supplies of shale gas” does not mean that the gas is sitting in a warehouse somewhere just waiting to be burned. There is a lot of drilling and hydrofracing left to do to extract that gas.

    2. That gas is not free. It is already owned by someone who will expect to make a great deal of money if they risk the capital investment required to make it available.

    3. Public Utility Commissions work for consumers and have traditionally worked to protect consumer interest by pushing electric power utilities to dispatch the lowest operating cost generation first. They do not push coal for coal’s sake; it is quite a bit cheaper per unit of heat (measured in millions of BTU’s.) Even with very low natural gas prices like those available today, when there is a bit more supply than there is demand a million BTU’s of gas cost more than 2 times as much as a million BTU of coal.

    4. A major portion of the natural gas fired capacity is in “peaker” units that are not very efficient and not designed for continuous economic service. They start up fast, but they also consume a lot of high quality, high cost fuel per unit electricity produced.

    Sure, methane is cleaner than coal, but for many years the tobacco industry tried to tell customers that “lite” cigarettes burned cleaner than the alternative.

    I’m okay with people who honestly market methane – even when they use the more market friendly term of “natural” gas. It is a useful fuel that is less damaging than its fossil fuel competitors.

    I am not okay with those who claim that “nothing’s worse than coal”, yet put lots of time and effort into keeping zero-carbon, heavy metal fission out of the conversation as a potential tool in the fight against carbon emissions.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

  39. Mark Shapiro says:

    Rod –

    It’s good to have people supporting nuclear, but

    1) the costs that we know about are too high;
    2) we don’t know what the other (safety, security) costs are; there is no market to value them;
    3) my conservative side really, really dislikes putting so much concentrated power into fallible, human hands.
    It is concentrated physical, economic, bureaucratic, and political power. And it raises a huge red flag: why do no conservatives raise these fundamental conservative concerns about nuclear power?

  40. Mike#22 says:

    Rockfish wrote: ” And why is it that NG suppliers have never been able to provide long term price stability? Why is there now a “glut” when a couple of years ago there was a price spike?”

    NG prices are linked somehow to oil prices:

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/ngw/ngupdate.asp

  41. Erik S.G. says:

    Mark/Joe:

    First, if I understand your position correctly, you’re advocating for the use of natural gas-fired power generation as a way to “quickly reduce coal generation and achieve massive greenhouse gas emissions reductions.” In particular, you’re advocating for more intensive use of existing, under-utilized NG-fired power plants.

    [JR: As one one of many ways. It's all in my earlier posts, especially part 2.]

    But I’m simply not convinced that it would, in fact, achieve “massive emissions reductions.” To reach that conclusion, we’d have to see a comparative, cradle-to-grave analysis of greenhouse gas emissions used to power NG vs. coal-fired power plants — from exploration and production, processing, transmission, and distribution of NG and coal, to com the combustion of NG and coal. At present, your posts continue to focus on the reduced GHGs at the point of combustion (e.g., 50-60% less) but don’t address full life-cycle emissions.

    [JR: Not sure why people post critiques based on speculation that could be answered in 60 seconds on google. Full life-cycle looks to be at least 50% reduction (see here, and note the coal plant is supercritical PC, which is NOT the plant gas would be replacing, so you can probably add 10% to the number in that analysis for typical coal plant. Also, by doing massive efficiency like W-M, you don't actually increase gas production, just switch its use, while slashing coal use, so I'm not sure how much of the CH4 emissions should even count. And, of course, it is a much more short-lived GHG.]

    I do think that natural gas can play an important role and I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised if NG is in fact less dirty than coal. But the question is by much, especially relative to our ability to constrain total GHG emissions as close as possible to 350 PPM. And, based on what I know, I just don’t see it as a “gamechanger.”

    [JR: I have explained what I mean and so we disagree.]

    And, while mountaintop mining for coal is, unequivocally devastating and horrific, this is cold comfort to the farms, ranches, and landscapes that have been devastated by industrial-scale NG development. Let’s remember that the problem isn’t coal, or oil, or NG — it’s our continued dependence on dirty fossil fuels. All of them. They served a purpose decades ago, but that purpose has run — or is near running — its course.

    [JR: No. The problem is GHGs.]

    Second, I think the use of the term “gamechanger” is, from a framing perspective, quite dangerous and unhelpful. While your position re: NG is actually fairly conservative, I anticipate that it will be exploited. And much of the environmental community — as attested to by RFK, Jr.’s piece — rhetorically states that NG “impacts can be mitigated by careful regulation” but I have yet to see a huge push in that direction.

    [JR: Again, we disagree. And again, NG impacts < < coal impacts. Not even in the same league.]

    A very possible scenario is the NG industry latching onto its “gamechanger” role and using that role to squash any sort of push for “careful regulation” by castigating them as “impediments to low-cost NG production.” The environmental community will thus be put in a difficult position as being seen in opposition to a climate “gamechanger.” This suggests to me the need to properly frame the issue right from the get go as a “potentially important means of transitioning away from coal and towards efficient use of clean energy, like wind and solar.” As writers with considerable political acumen, I hope you see this distinction. But at present, these posts seem too much like boosters for NG, not its careful, defined, limited, and temporary use.

    [JR: You're getting desperate here. NG is already largely unregulated at national level, though more so a state level. So nowhere to go but up.]

    So, third, if we’re going to use NG as a “bridge” fuel, let’s make sure the bridge is as well built and short as possible. You’ve indicated that you see NG-fired power generation as critical for the next few decades. Well, how do we actually make sure that it doesn’t gain a foothold and, in fact, become a permanent fixture, with political lobbyists willing to defend its place in our economy? And what type of careful regulation are we talking about? Let’s put these questions — and their answers — on the table, *now*, so that it’s abundantly clear what we mean by using NG as a transition/brig fuel. The concept, at present, remains ill-defined.

    [JR: Except for that pesky thing called W-M, and its shrinking caps, which is what these posts are all about. Try again.]

    Some suggestions:

    1. The NG industry has to inventory and report their GHG emissions to federal/state regulators;

    2. Federal/state regulators develop and enforce (with a citizen watchdog role) regulatory measures designed to break down structural barriers currently undermining the deployment of existing, cost-effective GHG reduction measures applicable to NG exploration, production, processing, transmission, and distribution (the NG industry would often rather buy new leases than improve the efficiency of existing operations, which are often sold/traded to other companies);

    3. We figure out some way to include the NG’s upstream and midstream elements within the fold of the cap & trade system (remember, much of the existing upstream and midstream infrastructure may not actually fall within the cap & trade system at present because it is made up of hundreds of thousands of “small” emission sources that, nonetheless, are collectively significant) which could be quite helpful because of all the existing, off-the-shelf, and negative cost GHG reduction measures for NG which would reduce the cost of compliance with the cap;

    [JR: Uhh, that's what domestic offsets are for!]

    4. We collectively advocate for responsible, “do it right” principles, like ensuring that the sweetheart regulatory rollbacks provided by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to bedrock laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act are eliminated; and:

    5. We keep the NG industry out of our most special, important, and sensitive landscapes — our municipal watersheds, core wildlife habitats, wilderness-quality lands, etc. — not only because these are essential in their own right but because they are essential to our collective ability to withstand the impacts of a deteriorating climate.

    If you give these guys an inch, they’ll take a mile.

    Respectfully,
    Erik S.G.

    [JR: Sounds like you a good plan for your work in the next several years! Go for it. My focus remains avoiding catastrophic global warming.]

  42. Rockfish says:

    Mike#22:
    Thanks for the link, but I’m not sure what to make of that info.

    It brings up other questions, though. Is there a coal commodities market? Do coal spot and futures prices change in real time? If not, why not?
    If coal demand plummets, will coal prices drop too? Couldn’t this potentially keep coal (even with, someday, carbon costs attached) cheaper than gas, and thus first in the “dispatch order?”