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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Natural gas: the cleanest practical alternative

The bad news for adoption of renewable energy generation is that natural gas is increasingly cheap and requires relatively small capital investments.

The good news is that natural gas is increasingly cheap and requires relatively small capital investments.

A great discussion of the latter perspective can be found in the fall newsletter of the MIT Energy Institute. In summarizes “The Future of Natural Gas,” a report summarizing a two-year MITEI study.

Some excerpts of the newsletter article:
“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention. The analysis in this study provides the confirmation—natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report.

Moniz further noted, “In the very long run, very tight carbon constraints will likely phase out natural gas power generation in favor of zero-carbon or extremely low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, nuclear power, or natural gas and coal with carbon capture and storage. For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions.”
To cut to the quick, the best way to reduce carbon emissions is to find a way to retire the dirtiest coal-powered electric plants, and the only way to do that in the near term is to replace them with natural gas. The MIT researchers assume the switch will be complete by 2050.

The price of natural gas has been quite volatile over the past 40 years, so let’s hope for the sake of the economy — and the environment — that it remains cheap enough to enable such widespread adoption.

California has already gone down this path, with (according to 2008 EIA statistics) natural gas accounting for a majority (57.7%) of the state’s electricity generation. For the rest of the country, coal accounts for the plurality (48.2%). Unlike our current fiscal fiasco, this is one case where California remains a model for the rest of the country.

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