President Obama’s State of the Union speech notably set a new “challenge” last night that the U.S. should reach 80 percent “clean energy” by 2035. Using the standard definition of clean energy (carbon free renewables like wind and solar) the goal is a pipe dream. But Obama went out of his way to include natural gas in the definition, quietly pointing to the fact that using coal (without carbon capture) for electricity is the real problem in the U.S. and also bringing attention to the debate currently raging over natural gas.
With Obama calling for 80 percent “clean energy,” by 2035, he’s basically saying that he wants to bring coal use down to 20 percent of the nation’s total electricity generation. Currently coal accounts for about half of U.S. electricity generation — or as John Hofmeister, the former President of Shell Oil, noted at a conference last week, the U.S. consumes 1,200 train car loads of coal every hour, which is one train car load of coal every three seconds.
Reducing coal to 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity portfolio will still be difficult. Analysts with Black & Veatch have predicted that coal-fired power plants could drop to 25 percent of U.S. electricity generation, while natural gas could provide 40 percent and nuclear, hydro and classic renewables would make up the rest. But those predictions were based on federal pollution regulations and a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to much more bearish projections by the U.S. Energy Information Association, in 2035 coal will still make up 44 percent of electricity generation in the U.S.
Obama isn’t the only one who is focused on coal as the problem. Carl Pope, Chairman of the Sierra Club, stated at an event last week that his group’s goal is laser-focused on removing coal from the equation, seeking to take out half of the coal supply by 2025 and the rest by 2030.
The reason that the focus can now be solidly on coal is because natural gas has emerged in recent years as a viable replacement for coal. Because of recent discoveries of shale natural gas, the U.S. now has an estimated resource of over 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At 40 percent by 2035, Black & Veatch thinks that natural gas will become the dominant source of electricity for the country.
So the debate going on right now between environmentalists and the energy industry is if natural gas plays such a dominant role, will we be able to reduce carbon emissions enough and fight climate change? From my perspective, in the short term relying on natural gas for electricity generation will be a necessity, and it will also be very important to reach carbon reduction goals.
Geophysics professor at Stanford University Mark Zoback told me last Summer that he estimates by replacing 30 percent of coal-fired generation with gas (without CCS) it would get the U.S. almost to the point of a 17-20 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. With carbon capture technologies, gas power could cut carbon emissions even more.
Over the long run, we’ll need more renewables — solar and wind — to reduce carbon emissions further. Natural gas has significantly fewer carbon (and toxic) emissions than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel.
However, we no doubt need natural gas in the meantime. It’ll be one of the cheaper ways to reduce carbon emissions, given newly discovered natural gas resources will help to stabilize the price for natural gas, making it more attractive for both the gas producers and utilities (fluctuating prices have deterred more use of natural gas for power production). Zoback pegged the stable price of gas around $6 per million BTUs, and that price gas could beat coal, meaning natural gas could be an economic replacement for coal power.
Now, to get to Obama’s wording for clean energy. I think it’s slightly disingenuous for him to lump in natural gas with the term “clean energy,” — perhaps a better term would be to just say non-coal power. Though, coal has some of the most well-funded lobbyists, so calling out the sector directly might draw him some flack from coal-rich states. But, while the wording is a bit of a trick, it’s also, at the end of the day, practical.
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