This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.
In 2008 fracking came into widespread use in US gas fields. Between 2008 and 2020 we reduced our CO2 emissions by 25%. This reduction was largely a result of substituting low-cost low-carbon natural gas for dirty coal in electrical generation. In 2008 49% of our electricity was generated from coal and 22% from natural gas. By 2020 only 19% of our electricity was generated from coal and the natural gas share increased to 41%. During the same period inflation adjusted-electricity prices actually declined because, thanks to fracking, natural gas was now cheaper than coal per kilowatt of electricity generated.
Renewables also substituted for coal. From 2008 to 2020 the percentage of electricity generated from solar and wind went from 1% to 10%. This increase is significant; however, it wouldn’t have happened if natural gas weren’t available when the sun didn’t shine and the wind didn’t blow. Because natural gas generators can spool up and down quickly, they are an enabling companion for sun and wind. Cheap natural gas also sheltered ratepayers from the above-market rates paid to renewable generators; but the total cost of wind and solar have come down quickly; so further deployment of renewables makes sense — as long as we have natural gas to back it up.
What happened in 2021?
If you look carefully at the graph above, you’ll see that energy related CO2 emissions spiked back up in 2021. So did electricity prices. Why? Because we shot ourselves in the foot! US natural gas supply decreased substantially almost entirely because of government hostility to drilling and pipeline building after the 2020 election. If you don’t continuously drill new wells, supply decreases as old wells go dry. We didn’t notice at first because the pandemic cut demand. Once the economy emerged from shutdown, we didn’t have enough natural gas. Coal for electrical generation usage went up from 19% to 22% as natural gas prices shot up and regional shortage developed. Natural gas usage went down from 41% to 38%. Electricity prices went up for the first time in more than a decade. Wind and solar did increase their share but not enough to offset increased CO2 from more coal burning. Several regions came perilously close to grid shutdowns because there wasn’t enough natural gas to back up the increased wind and solar.
And now there’s a war
Europe is learning its lesson thanks to a powerful slap from Putin. What’s happening there is a terrible object lesson in the harm that’s done to people, the economy, and the environment from an attempt to ban all fossil fuels indiscriminately and before substitutes are available. Because natural gas is a fossil fuel, anti-fracking advocates were able to dissuade European nations from developing new supply or even maintaining the flow from existing fields (which always requires new drilling). The result: Europe is burning much more coal than it has for years just to keep the lights on. The skies of Europe may be literally black with coal smoke if there’s a cold winter.
Europe is pledged to add carbon-free electricity sources to their grid. However, they can’t add more wind and solar without a supply of natural gas to provide backup any more than we can here. Battery technology and capability is not nearly at the point where excess solar and wind can be stored for future use in any meaningful quantities. Brussels has now recognized natural gas as a green “transition” fuel and investments in natural gas infrastructure are allowed again. The UK’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, has announced an end to that country’s ban on fracking and her intention to grant a 100 new oil and gas leases.
We and our European friends can and must build electrical grids where natural gas backup power as well as nuclear are integrated with a renewable buildout.
But what about the environment?
Each year forests and other vegetation absorb up to a third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels. The implications are clear: if we reduce emissions from fossil fuels by two-thirds and preserve our vegetative cover, we will be at zero net emissions. We will not be increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. If we reduce emissions a little further or plant more trees, we’ll start to reduce the concentration of CO2 and temperatures should start to decline if atmospheric models from the UN are correct.
Even if natural gas remains part of the generation mix forever and is not replaced by hydrogen or batteries or nuclear fusion, we can achieve the 2/3 reduction in emissions necessary to stabilize atmospheric CO2. We can relatively cheaply eliminate coal (twice the CO2 emitted per kilowatt generated). We can build new nukes and deploy more renewables. We can electrify further with a clean enough electricity supply. But, at least for now, we must allow ourselves to use natural gas to balance the renewables and replace the coal.
Insisting that “all” fossil fuel use be eliminated has resulted in more coal being burned and a dangerous reliance on Russian fuel. A two-third reduction in net emissions in a reasonable time is doable if not easy. The world as we know it doesn’t have to end. Good news.