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Natural Gas and Renewables: Friends Not Foe

Those of us who pay attention are well aware of the environmental benefits of natural gas, ranging from cleaner air to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, there are some  in the environmental community who have turned against this job-creating fuel, suggesting its expanded use represents some sort of attack upon renewable energy use.  Yet as the Associated Press highlights this week,  “…experts note that even renewables need conventional backup, since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.”

Which of course brings us back to natural gas.

Michael Shellenberger, head of the Oakland-based environmental think tank Breakthrough Institute, states that the rejection of natural gas by celebrities and other activists is deeply flawed. Says Shellenberger:

“It demonstrates the ignorance of renewable power advocates to suggest that renewables can run without gas. We don’t get to say, ‘I only want solar and wind.'”

Clearly, to say there is no role for natural gas in the renewables story is flawed at best – especially if you want to keep your lights on at night, heat your home in the winter, and fuel American steel mills to keep manufacturing those wind turbines. In fact, many people on both sides of the aisle recognize the link between renewable energy growth and natural gas, including President Obama’s new nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy, Ernest Moniz.

According to a landmark study Moniz co-chaired while at MIT:

“In broad terms, we find that, given the large amounts of natural gas available in the U.S. at moderate cost … natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system.” (7/19/11)

Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, also stated earlier this year that natural gas and renewables are a great match. The Climate Desk reports:

’Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely,’ Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said this morning at a press conference for the release of Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2013 Factbook, an exhaustive analysis of the state of clean energy in America…

“The report, based on a blend of original and existing government research, is unequivocal in placing natural gas in the same ‘clean energy’ boat as renewables, a new arrangement Resch and Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association, agreed they were happy to see. ’…Natural gas can fill the gap when renewables go intermittant,’ he said, ‘ramping up when the wind stops or the sun goes down.’” (1/31/13)

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) also highlighted the importance of natural gas from increased shale development in the renewable energy story. Bloomberg reports:

“’Shale gas at low cost can help to create a hybrid system,’ whereby more gas-fired power is fed to the grid, supplanting coal, and augmented by wind and solar, {Adnan Amin, director-general of IRENA, said}.”

As the Business Council For Sustainable Energy’s 2013 Factbook also states, “Gas generators, which are inherently flexible technologies that can be easily ramped up and down to meet demand, are natural counterparts for variable resources such as wind and solar.”

Need proof? Just take GE’s new gas turbine. The flexibility and efficiency of natural gas enables it to support other fuel sources which are not always available.  According to Vice President of GE Power & Water Paul Browning, natural gas is ideal for baseload and fast ramping, and “it’s that combination that makes it a great partner with renewables.”

So why the negative hype? Despite the natural synergy between natural gas and renewable technologies like solar and wind, some groups have stood in the way of natural gas, particularly when it’s produced from shale. The Sierra Club, who just a few years ago was advocating for natural gas as the cleanest-burning fossil fuel and a partner in renewable energy growth, has changed its tune with the “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign — which of course has been highly criticized as hypocritical and damaging, for both consumers and American energy development.

After all, who really loses when we turn our back on secure, American energy of any kind? As CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association Rhone Resch puts it, we are all working towards something uniquely important for our nation. “I think it’s important to recognize that these industries, although we do compete, are working together to address some of the most pressing energy needs in the country.”

So the next time a vocal critic of shale development says we should stop producing natural gas and focus exclusively on growing renewables, perhaps the best thing to say is, “Even the renewables industry doesn’t agree with that!”

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