In a town hall meeting with staffers last week, new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz dropped a bombshell and a hint. The bombshell, at least as far as fans of natural gas are concerned, is that Moniz sees natural gas not as a permanent fixture in the US energy landscape, but merely as a temporary “bridge” to a globally competitive, low-carbon future that is well within our grasp.
As for the hint, Moniz mentioned that the Energy Department will ramp up its efforts to develop small hydro, engineered geothermal systems, and other “forgotten renewables.” That could have a profound impact on the ability of different areas of the country to leverage local and regional energy resources for economic development.
The phrase “forgotten renewables” came up during Moniz’s confirmation hearings, in the opening statement by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).
While spending considerable time acknowledging the current advantages of low-cost natural gas, Wyden makes clear that natural gas is not the answer for sustainable, long-term competitiveness in the global marketplace, given the potential for low-cost renewable energy technology breakthroughs outside of the US:
“Today, low cost natural gas provides our nation’s economy with a competitive advantage. However, new technological breakthroughs could put our competitive advantage at risk in the foreseeable future…. Renewables must be part of that solution. The committee this month will take up bills that will encourage hydropower and geothermal, which we would call the forgotten renewables.”
Moniz And Natural Gas
Moniz echoed this sentiment at the Energy Department town hall. Though he started off by stating that “this natural gas boom is a boon” in terms of its relatively low-carbon emissions, he uses that to make the case for a more aggressive pursuit of a long-term solution in the form of advanced alternative energy technology, including small hydro and engineered geothermal as well as “other options:”
“…gas [is] kind of a bridge to a very low carbon future… it affords us a little bit more time to develop the technologies, to lower the costs of the alternative technologies, to get the market penetration of these new technologies.”
The significance of that approach becomes clear if you take into account Moniz’s mention of solar power. He describes solar as a form of energy that will be “a lot bigger than most people think sooner than they think,” but he goes on to acknowledge that it is a regional strength, not a national one.
Given that context, Moniz is pitching “forgotten renewables” as policy platform not only for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but just as importantly for an increased focus on local energy sourcing that will enable all regions of the US, including Senator Wyden’s rainy, cloudy Pacific Northwest, to offer competitive renewable energy options.
National Energy Policy And Fossil Fuel Transportation
That brings us to something we’ll call the “forgotten fossil fuel problem,” namely, the environmental risks and costs of long-distance fossil fuel transportation.
Though major disasters like the BP Gulf Coast oil spill have brought attention to the risks involved in oil drilling, the fact is that fuel transportation is a risk factor that faces a current and future double whammy of increased development combined with an aging, under-monitored infrastructure.
That’s a problem begging for a policy that focuses more on local sourcing, with long-distance transport reserved mainly for electricity and not solid or liquid fuels.
Regarding the aging infrastructure of oil pipeline transportation, take a look back at the disastrous Enbridge oil pipeline spill that polluted 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan two years ago with full cleanup nowhere near in site, or consider the damage done to a residential area and adjacent Lake Conway by the more recent ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas.
Now add in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. Even the notoriously lame draft Environmental Impact Statement written for the State Department noted that the pipeline will cross well over 1,000 waterways on its way from Canada down to the Gulf Coast, and the Environmental Protection Agency piled on by pointing out that the pipeline will carry a slurry of tar sands oil, which is exponentially more difficult to clean up than conventional oil.
We could go on… for example, there’s the issue of impacts from centralized natural gas storage and distribution hubs, wastewater transportation from natural gas fracking operations, the growing impacts of coal transportation, and the looming problem of petcoke disposal.
Given all of the above, it is little wonder that Ernest Moniz has called this “the crucial decade” for getting advanced renewable energy technologies off the ground and into the mainstream marketplace, natural gas or no natural gas.
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