Energy: The Future Will Be a Gas

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That was one message from yesterday’s Energy Innovation 2010 summit at the National Press Club in Washington, put on by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute. And it came from a high-level source: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter. Richter—who helped put together a group of 34 Nobel laureates who sent a letter to President Obama last year calling on him to spend $150 billion on clean technology research and development—dissected the current climate and energy debate and found it wanting, both technologically and politically. In focusing our energy quest around climate instead of, well, energy, we’d managed to exclude political players who knew the U.S. needed to change its energy diet but were less convinced by the threat of global warming. In emphasizing the deployment of what Richter called “ultra-green” energy technologies like wind and solar—through renewable energy standards and direct subsidies—we’ve lost chances to reduce carbon by cutting out medium-green technologies like natural gas.

For Richter—who’s hardly alone in his opinion—expanding the energy debate beyond the climate question could help break the logjam we find ourselves in, unable to pass legislation that prices carbon and unable to approach energy through anything other than jury-rigged politics. “We’ll have an easier time getting around the roadblocks to action if we talk about more than one dimension in our energy policy,” he said. (If you want to explore Richter’s views on energy and climate in-depth, check out his recent book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors.)

In the short-term, Richter suggested dropping the idea of a renewable energy standard (RES) or subsidies in favor of policies that focus on the overall carbon emissions of a given energy technology, whatever it is. Why should the government be telling utilities and industry exactly what technologies they should be using to reduce carbon emissions—which is essentially what happens in an RES and subsidy-driven policy?

Richter used the example of California’s Million Solar Roof project, a state initiative that aims to greatly expand the installation of solar photovoltaics. For the $15 to $20 billion Richter estimates the state might spend on the project, he believes it would be possible to get twice the carbon reductions by converting coal plants to natural gas, or even by building new nuclear plants. “We need to keep solar and renewables going, but not as an expense above everything else,” Richter said. “The environmentalists know what we need to do, but they don’t know enough about how we should do it to be prescriptive.”

Based on the just-released report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Richter is right to say that natural gas is likely to be the go-to fuel for the immediate future, both for carbon reasons and for cost. The report (download an early release here) finds that expanded supplies of shale gas in the U.S. will lead to an increase in domestic natural gas production and consumption over the next few decades. As this graph shows, coal will actually shrink as a percentage of the U.S. electricity mix, while natural gas (as well as renewables) will increase:

Of course, there is no shortage of environmental problems associated with natural gas production—especially the hydrofracking done to get at the new shale gas deposits found in the Northeast. Concerns over water contamination have mobilized local environmental groups and some homeowners against fracking in Pennsylvania and especially New York state, where Governor David Paterson just ordered a seven-month moratorium on hydrofracking gas, pending further environmental review. In Washington the Environmental Protection Agency is undertaking its own deep study into the risks of hydrofracking, though that report won’t be out until 2012. From a sheer climate perspective, though, more natural gas is a no-brainer, at least compared to other fossil fuels—natural gas emits about half the CO2 of coal, and it’s cheaper and more reliable than renewables are today. Though we need to take into account the environmental externalities that come with drilling, Richter is right to say that we should judge our fuels on their carbon merits, not just their politics.