New research published in Nature questions natural gas's ability to usher the United States toward a low-carbon future. How could this impact the future of the country's electricity generation fleet? On today's The Cutting Edge, EnergyWire reporter Peter Behr discusses natural gas's role in carbon-constrained power generation.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. New research questions natural gas's ability to usher the United States towards a low-carbon future. EnergyWire's Peter Behr joins me to talk about the impacts on the electricity generation sector. Pete, the study published in Nature got people talking. How significant is it to the broader conversation on emissions regulation?
Peter Behr: Well, it is significant. We reported several times on it last week at E&E News. It's the first time that computer models have been used to try to answer the question of, what happens by 2050 if natural gas is really the dominant fuel, if there's plenty of it, if it's very cheap relative to other fuels? And the answer they came back with is if you look at the entire globe that natural gas does not contribute to a significant lessening in greenhouse gases by 2050 and may not contribute at all unless there're also strong climate policies accompanying it. Gas has an advantage over coal, but it also has minuses that this study focused on.
Monica Trauzzi: What're those minuses?
Peter Behr: Well, there're three of them. One is that gas doesn't just substitute for coal plants. Gas has half of the carbon footprint that coal does when you run it through a power plant, but they also found that very cheap, plentiful gas around the world would cut back into low-carbon or zero-carbon sources. So there'd be fewer new nuclear plants built. It would hold back the development of solar and wind power, which are zero sources, and in that way the overall impact of gas is not positive, and that runs against the administration's strategy that gas is, at least in the next decade or two, a short-term bridge to cleaner energy.
Monica Trauzzi: And if not coal and not natural gas, what does the industry focus on to generate baseload power?
Peter Behr: Well, I think that in the next decade or so it's going to be not dramatically different, because we are just not in a position, taking the United States for an example, to commit to a future of wind power and solar power and batteries and non-fossil-fuel sources. So it's going to be a transition, and what this study emphasizes is that if you accompany plentiful gas, cheap gas, with climate policies, then you do get benefits out of it, because it doesn't cut deeply into renewables.
The other issues with plentiful gas are methane emissions. The study assumes that methane emissions, fugitive emissions that leak out of gas wells and pipelines are a serious problem now, and the study assumes going out to 2050 that that problem doesn't get fixed. And, finally, because gas is so cheap in their model, we get a little faster economic growth. We get faster economic growth, that means more energy consumption and, therefore, more emissions.
Monica Trauzzi: So EPA is expected this fall to make a decision on how it will proceed with methane-emissions regulations. This question of leakage, as you said, is a big factor. So if they do decide to move forward with regulations, how does that play into this conversation, then, on natural gas's future as part of the energy mix?
Peter Behr: Well, the authors of the study -- and it was headed by researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Lab -- they took kind of the worst case and said, "Let's assume that the methane emissions are at the high level that the most alarming study has found so far." We still have much to learn about how much methane is coming out and where it's coming from. The study also assumed that nobody would do anything about methane emissions between now and 2050, and that's not realistic. But the point of the study is if you're going to rely on gas, you'd better do something about methane leaking, as California is starting to do.
Monica Trauzzi: Very interesting. We'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show. More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We'll see you then.
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