Renewable Energy and Natural Gas: Transitioning to a Low-Carbon Economy

Ellen Bell | May 23, 2014

America Ferrera in Kansas The landscape of energy generation in the United States is transforming, although the necessity of this change and what the future of energy generation should look like are open to debate. This week’s episode of Years of Living Dangerously focused on America’s energy future, specifically natural gas and renewable energy as opportunities to move ourselves away from more carbon-intensive sources such as coal. As with any advancement in an established industry, both natural gas and renewable energy face institutional and technical barriers, which I’ll highlight below.

Renewable Energy

We followed America Ferrera as she headed to Kansas to meet with a pioneering rancher who built one of the state’s first wind farms and then on to the state legislature to understand why the state’s Renewable Energy Standard is under attack. Renewable energy standards set a requirement for the percentage of a state’s energy that has to be produced from renewable sources. These standards are what allowed ranchers like the one Ferrera visits to change their business model and harvest a crop that is drought proof – wind. In Kansas, the regulation declares that 20 percent of energy generation has to come from renewable sources by 2020, but that standard came under attack in 2013 from groups like the Heartland Institute that claim that climate change is not a crisis that needs to be addressed through government regulation.

The advantages of renewables are clear, they are cost effective, local, create jobs and polling shows that three out of four Americans believe that they should be part of our future. Despite these facts, the narrative surrounding renewable energy is being overtaken by those that claim it is more expensive than other alternatives and wish for the status quo to remain. Although the national government has made cultivating renewables and other alternative sources of energy a priority, influential policy decisions are often made at the state level, and this is where the Heartland Institute is taking its flawed argument in an attempt to stop the expansion of renewable mandates and dismantle them where possible. In the end they had no success in repealing any renewable energy standards in 2013, but they are still a threat with a credible chance of succeeding in Ohio shortly.

EDF’s Clean Energy program is working hard in nine energy-intensive states to stop this backward slide and continue the progress that supports the continued development of both renewable energy technology and requirements so that the grid of the future continues to shed its dependence on coal while strengthening economic development. And, as a part of EDF Climate Corps, we’ve placed 71 talented graduate students in these nine states to help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. These graduate fellows will explore opportunities for demand response and renewable energy generation within some of the leading organizations in the country.

Natural Gas

The other technology explored in this episode is natural gas. Natural gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless and produces significantly less carbon dioxide when burned than coal does. The problem lies in the fact that, when it gets into the atmosphere without being burned, it is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there is no definitive answer as to how much gas escapes while it is being extracted and then transported for use in your home. Mark Bittman, a writer for the New York Times, traces industry, governmental and independent data to understand what this option will mean for our future and whether we know enough to understand if its inherent dangers are worth the benefits.

The natural gas market is growing even faster than renewables, and the questions that surround gas leakage are complicated by the various relationships between industry, government and the scientific community. The agreed threshold for acceptable leakage to make natural gas preferable to coal is 3 percent, and right now the best available scientific estimation based on accessible data finds that leakage is happening at a rate of at least 4.6 percent. Industry experts claim that a leak rate that high is not possible because it would be detrimental for business and place it at only 1 percent. Government estimates tend to fall fairly closely in line with those of the industry experts, but their facts rely on industry provided data, leaving no doubt that a great deal more independent verifiable research needs to be done. This is especially urgent given that recent studies have found alarmingly high rates of leakage, including leakage of up to 17 percent in Los Angeles.

So where does that leave us? The simple fact is that there is a problem and comprehensive, technical studies that give us concrete numbers and provide answers regarding how to fix the issue so this cleaner option remains viable need to be undertaken. In Colorado, EDF successfully campaigned for tough regulation on natural gas leaks but the task of actually fixing them remains. The natural gas boom is just getting started, and this multitude of uncertainties has led EDF to organize a comprehensive research initiative involving more than 90 partners — universities, scientists, research facilities and oil and gas companies. Right now the benefits and drawbacks of natural gas are not clear overall. We simply don’t have enough information to provide a definitive answer, and so we are left with the task of determining if the risk is worth taking.

Stay Tuned: Three EDF Climate Corps fellows star on Years of Living Dangerously this Monday 5/26 at 8PM.