Life in a trade organization such as COGA involves a hefty amount of interaction with different sectors of people. Often enough when talking with people concerning what I do for a living, a phrase pops up: “Well shouldn’t we be pushing for renewable energy?” And my answer to this is YES!
I find that many people do not have a firm grasp on the actual output that renewables (Wind/Solar/Biodiesel/Geothermal/Hydroelectric) produce in today’s electricity generation scene. With the promise of these renewable technologies, many people think these are immediate, adequate substitutes for traditional energy sources. However, one trip to the EIA(Energy information administration) will dispel all notions that renewables will swiftly replace fossil fuels for electricity generation. In 2010 renewables supplied a mere 10% (6% of that coming from hydroelectric, 2% wind, 1.3% biomass, .03% solar) of electricity generation in the United States.
One other factor to consider about renewables is that, unlike their fossil fuel counterparts, renewable energy sources by and large are restricted to their geographical areas. The National Renewable Energy Labs have maps detailing ‘hot zones’ for all sources of renewable energy. The wind and solar maps demonstrate the limits to which renewables would even provide a reliable source for energy across the nation. Combined with the chants of ‘end fossil fuels now’, the notion for immediate substitution with renewables becomes completely unrealistic.
To the dismay of many, energy change happens gradually. In the case of renewables, the need for intermittent power is one of the biggest issues. Contrary to popular belief, the natural gas industry embraces the renewable energy sector. Natural gas is seen as a top fuel for when the wind doesn’t blow and sun doesn’t shine. This is mainly due to the fact that a natural gas power plant can quickly turn on and off needed power, also known as its capacity factor.
Subsidies also play an important part in the support of energy sources. Claims that the oil and gas industry receives ‘huge’ subsidies and tax benefits are just plain false. Let’s first concede that oil and gas does receive subsidies, but so do all energy sectors. Here is an interesting look at subsidies broken down by energy source. In 2010, oil/natural gas received $2.8 billion in electric energy subsidies; renewables received $14.6 billion. When put in the context that renewables only output 10% of the nation’s electricity needs, the $14.6 billion becomes staggering. Recently, it also has become a staunch advocating point that wind has come down in cost and is currently competitive with gas/coal. However, when looking at the output per subsidy received in 2010, wind was subsidized $56.29/Megawatt Hour, whereas natural gas was subsidized $.64/MWH. Sure, wind might be cost the same as gas now, but only thanks to subsidies, and in the end who pays for that? Taxpayers.
So if I’m in support of renewable technology, why did I just spend the last few paragraphs seemingly contradicting myself? It’s because I’m a realist, and when considering energy change, it is paramount to maintain an attitude of what can realistically be done in order to make any progress. When nearly all wells in the nation are hydraulic fractured, it is unrealistic to “stop fracking now”. The United States consumes 95% of the natural gas produced here, while importing the rest from Canada. Our consumption lies in the form of electricity, industrial processing, and the heating of American homes. Such irresponsible statements such as “stop fracking now” would grind all oil and gas drilling to a halt. When assessing climate change, the biggest impact we can make today is to shift towards natural gas electricity. Gas is mobile, it is cheap, it is the “here and now” answer. And with a high capacity factor, it is the favored fuel to use on our road to reduce global warming.