The role of natural gas in a clean energy future has been widely debated due to concerns over life-cycle carbon emissions and perceptions that relying on natural gas as a “bridge fuel” is short-sighted and reduces investment in clean energy. A study published in the journal Science concluded methane leaks from the production and piping of natural gas were underestimated and could be large enough to undermine the carbon reduction benefits compared to coal. Recent utility developments have highlighted the competition between renewables and natural gas:
- Faced with a capacity shortage as a result of the retirement of the 2,200 MW San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), the California Public Utilities Commission issued a procurement decision which included a provision for new natural-gas fired power plants. The decision was criticized by environmental and renewable industry organizations who advocated for including only carbon-free energy sources.
- Plans to construct a natural gas power plant to replace the Salem Harbor coal power station was challenged in court by environmental groups who argued the plant would prevent the state of Massachusetts from meeting emissions targets in its Global Warming Solutions Act. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement that stipulates the new gas-fired plant must reduce its carbon emissions by 2026.
But are we overlooking opportunities for synergistic benefits of natural gas with renewables? That was the focus of a February 2014 report by the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis which explored the potential business cases for complementary natural gas and renewable energy. Flexible natural gas-fired power plants can help integrate higher percentages of wind and solar because they provide dispatchable capacity that can rapidly adjust output to balance electric system loads. Hybrid energy systems where natural gas capacity is co-located alongside wind or solar sources could allow power producers to guarantee firm, reliable electricity delivery.
Are natural gas and renewables necessarily competitive, or should they be viewed as complementary? How can energy policy and electricity markets capitalize on potential synergistic benefits? What effect could this approach have on the development of a low carbon energy system?