Renewable energy is booming and that is a good thing. Wind and solar have been adding capacity at an impressive clip and new technology innovations are occurring every day. But activists get ahead of themselves when proclaiming that a world without fossil fuels may soon be at hand or that we don’t need to drill for shale gas because we have such growth in renewables.
Far from being enemies, natural gas and renewables are actually perfect complements and environmentalists would do well to have a more open mind towards hydrofracking shale. Affordable natural gas, made possible by the shale revolution, is helping to better integrate renewables into the energy mix and is not shutting them out.
Because wind and solar are intermittent power sources they must be coupled up with baseload power and/or some form of storage to ensure the full time reliability of the power grid. In practice it has been best to pair up natural gas with renewables because natural gas is inherently flexible and gas turbines can be ramped up and down quickly to match the dynamics of real time supply and demand on the grid.
The use of batteries is growing, and Tesla’s recent announcement of its new line of stationary battery products for homes and industry is a welcome addition to the marketplace, but batteries remain challenged by high costs and the inability to provide deep, long-term storage. Natural gas and other fossil fuels can be stored indefinitely and the USA’s stockpiles can last months without resupply.
Among fossil fuels, natural gas offers dramatic improvements in emissions and air quality over all other fuels, whether coal, oil or biomass. But it is the flexible and highly efficient performance of natural gas that really makes it desirable. Modern combined cycle gas turbines are really in a league of their own when it comes to cost, reliability, and ease of deployment.
The most sophisticated new power plants directly integrate solar thermal technology with the combined cycle turbine. GE power just inked a deal in Saudi Arabia to construct a 600MW integrated solar and gas combined cycle plant. Florida Power and Light began operating a similar hybrid solar and gas plant last year. Energy storage, whether thermal storage or batteries, could also be integrated into these hybrid systems to offer even greater efficiencies.
We need to maximize the use of renewable energy. Wind, solar, biomass and all the other emerging renewable energy technologies have a valuable role to play in providing clean, domestic energy at competitive costs and a minimum of pollution, but we should also be honest in recognizing their limitations. Modern industrial society requires enormous volumes of energy around the clock, regardless of the weather. Intermittent resources like wind and solar simply do not provide power all the time so they need to be married up with other energy sources for continuity and natural gas has proven to be the best match.
Too often our energy debates devolve into technology tribalism, where advocates promote their favored solution at the expense of the others. These zero-sum games fail to recognize that a reliable, secure, clean and cost-effective energy system requires all energy technologies to contribute. Hydrofracking for shale gas and renewable energy are both revolutions that should be embraced for their complementary contributions to a clean energy future.
This piece ran on the Opinion page of the Syracuse Post-Standard, May 18, 2015.