Published on April 11th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan18
Natural Gas Is Bridge to Nowhere without Carbon Price & Serious Methane Leak Improvements
April 11th, 2012 by Zachary Shahan
It is often argued that natural gas is an important bridge to a completely renewable energy economy. I have bought into that a bit, but some recent studies have really made the case for natural gas questionable, at best. One of those studies is linked above, and another is a new one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure” that finds that current methane leaks are higher than thought and largely or even completely undercut the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas.
Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is an extremely strong greenhouse gas (though, a greenhouse gas with a shorter lifespan than CO2).
For more on this study and numerous others related to the statistics of methane leaked by natural gas, the global warming harm of natural gas vehicles, and other natural gas topics, check out this Climate Progress post. If you’d rather skip the details, here’s the summary at the end:
“BOTTOM LINE: If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible. Natural gas isn’t a true bridge fuel from a climate perspective. Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale by the end of the century.”
Now, one important issue not discussed in Joe Romm’s piece above is whether or not natural gas limits or helps to hasten renewable energy growth. The assumption is that it limits such growth. I lean towards thinking it does, as well. However, an argument not discussed above is that natural gas makes it easier to switch to clean energy such as solar and wind since it is easily dispatchable, unlike coal or nuclear — when there’s a gap in power coming from solar, wind, hydro, or other such sources, natural gas can quickly be used to fill in the gap, whereas coal or nuclear take a long time to start up or shut down and, in order to have them filling the gap, they must be running more. While this may be a benefit of natural gas that makes it more appropriate than coal or nuclear in a largely renewable energy mix, I think we’d be better off going the route of more energy storage, a smarter grid and energy management systems, and a broad mix of a variety of renewable energy options. Why build a bridge when you you don’t need one?