Nothing New Under the Sun with the Natural Gas Opposition
A continuing education program on natural gas development took place in Heritage Hills, N.Y., last night, and it was an opportunity lost for the promotion of renewable energy. The opposition to natural gas looks at a clean-burning fuel and sees only a threat to renewables, when in fact it should see tremendous potential.
Last night I took a drive over to Heritage Hills in Westchester County, N.Y., to make a presentation to a community association as part of a continuing education series. It was a well-attended meeting of some very smart people on both sides of the issue. It also led to an invigorating discussion with the audience and my anti-gas counter part, Patricia Wood, who represented a Park Foundation-funded group known as Grassroots Environmental Education. We both made presentations, which was followed by a very balanced question and answer session. You can access my presentation here, which largely speaks for itself.
What was most interesting to me, aside from the beautiful community and gracious hosts, was the nature of the opposition’s arguments. There was, as the old saying goes, “nothing new under the sun.” Much of the discussion focused on renewables, including energy from the sun, and it became crystal clear to me just how much of the opposition to natural gas is driven by fans of renewables who are scared to death the former will somehow hamstring the latter.
Of course, that’s not true at all. Indeed, the only way to hasten the development of renewables is to create a foundation on which they can rest. Sadly, our friends on the other side are Oscar Wilde type cynics who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” They view natural gas as a threat, when in reality it’s the ticket to their success.
Patti Wood’s presentation pretty much followed along the lines of her website and this laundry list of unsubstantiated assertions, interspersed with the requisite video of Tammy Manning and Rebecca Roter presenting more of the same, leading one questioner to later ask where the evidence might be. Then there was the usual recitation of the “Halliburton Loophole,” which I noted had been debunked by none other than Tony Ingraffea. There was, too, the suggestion that flowback would be spread on roads — even though DEC has already prohibited this (see §18.104.22.168 of the SGEIS). Wood dismisses the SGEIS, of course, because DEC actually employs folks with industry experience to regulate the industry, and we just can’t have experienced people as regulators apparently!
Finally, there was the obligatory accusation that hydraulic fracturing had polluted fresh water supplies. Unsurprisingly, Wood couldn’t actually cite a single specific instance of this, probably because it’s simply not true.
In short, Ms. Wood’s remarks were a collection of all the typical stuff we’ve debunked here hundreds of times, along with several blatantly false assertions about Dimock (e.g., polluted air, farmers leaving, no permanent jobs) thrown into the mix. Because facts are more important than hysteria, I gladly invited everyone there to visit Dimock and see for themselves.
Where the passion came out strongest, though, was on the subject of renewables. Wood noted her daughter had gone solar and was now “off the grid.” We didn’t hear how much the taxpayers might have contributed in the way of subsidies for the system, of course, or whether such subsidies were practical if we attempted the kind of fairy tale conversion from fossil fuels to renewables that Wood advocates. They are not currently practical on that scale, of course — although renewables are clearly an important part of our future.
I would have thought an individual committed to cleaner energy (and especially cleaner air) would have recognized the importance of a fuel that burns more cleanly than other conventional fuels, and which can also serve as a back-up source of power to complement solar, wind, and geothermal. Natural gas, after all, is the obvious way to go for those times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. It also allows us to address those energy needs that can’t be met with a few arrays or windmills in the yard; things like powering a factory or a car, or even heating large buildings like The Dakota, where some of the most prominent opponents of natural gas reside without a shred of irony or self-guilt.
But Ms. Wood’s vision of the future is one that apparently involves an immediate cessation of fossil fuel use and a precipitous shift to renewables, as if that were even remotely possible, bemoaning what she saw as the inevitable delaying of this necessary step thanks to inexpensive natural gas. Revealingly, when asked what could be done to bring her side and ours together, her response was simply to say natural gas was so bad as to foreclose any possibility of compromise. So much for reasoned debate in search of win-win solutions.
When Ms. Wood was asked for examples of the practicality of renewables, she predictably cited Germany as the example, claiming that it was already producing 50% of its energy from them. She was, of course, non-plussed by the fact that Germany is building a bunch of coal plants because the “chaos” of its rapid renewables strategy has strained the electric grid (they are also pursuing natural gas development). Moreover, she didn’t seem to appreciate the difference between capacity and production, the former being what renewables advocates always like to rely upon before someone points out these systems typically operate at less than 25% of capacity — often far less.
It all made me think what I might have said if I were in her place. I probably would have offered something along these lines:
Renewables have to be a part of our energy future. We cannot afford to be dependent on any one energy source, and renewables offer tremendous potential on supplementing other sources, particularly on the residential and commercial fronts. We have demonstrated that it’s possible to take a home “off the grid” using solar arrays and small geothermal and wind systems. The more we employ these systems, the better the technology will be and the more economically feasible they’ll become for more widespread use.
The challenge, of course, is to reduce the price of these systems to a point where they are affordable to all and not just a boutique component for small portions of the population. We’re getting closer every day, but it will likely take several decades before consumers will choose renewable solutions because they are cost competitive without relying on other taxpayers for help. Indeed, widespread acceptance will demand this.
The secret is to get these consumers to focus on their total energy bill or budget and to appreciate the value of having energy choices in their home. If we can show consumers it’s the total bill that counts and demonstrate the reliability of a system that employs renewables as part of the mix, we will increase their role. A renewable energy system combined with natural gas actually offers the best of both worlds. It offers the home or business owner a clean and reliable energy source (natural gas) that will provide enough savings to incrementally add renewables, in affordable bites, to the energy portfolio.
This is what so many experts mean by explaining natural gas as a bridge fuel. It isn’t a matter of waiting on renewables and delaying the inevitable, as so many would claim. Rather, it’s a way to jumpstart renewables by providing the homeowner with extra cash in his or her pocket to pursue incremental renewables options. Natural gas conversions are also reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.
We should engage in an education campaign to further leverage the cost savings by encouraging home and business owners to employ renewables options as supplements to their natural gas systems, such that we can multiply the benefits several times over. We’ll also get dual protection: “off the grid” renewables when they’re available, and a clean-burning back stop with natural gas when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Renewables and natural gas are, in short, perfect complements.
Nothing close to this came out last night from the opposition. Instead, it was non-stop uncompromising negativism. Grassroots Environmental Education was all about what couldn’t be done, when it should have been about how we can work together for a cleaner environment, energy independence and a stronger economy. What an opportunity lost.