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Debate: What Role Should Natural Gas Play in Improving Access to Energy?

Charles McConnell, Executive Director, Rice University Energy and Environment Initiative

Charles McConnell: Natural Gas Holds the Key to True Energy Sustainability

John Rogers, Senior Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

John Rogers: Natural Gas Should Complement Renewables — Not Crowd Them Out

Renewable energy is important, but natural gas is the key to improving access and sustainability.


There’s little doubt that natural gas can help improve access to electricity around the world. In fact, there’s a compelling case to be made that natural gas is the key to enabling a sustainable energy policy and strategy in the U.S. for the foreseeable future — and to enable pursuit of the grand global energy challenges.

Natural gas-fired power can meet new growth energy demands for expansion and for the retirements of old, less environmentally advanced generation. Gas is also able to provide the shoulder capacity necessary to ramp up and down with the variances in supply and demand. And it’s there when the gaps in renewable supplies occur on days that are not windy or sunny! Natural gas is the enabler to a more thoughtful and mature approach to energy sustainability today — and tomorrow.

Energy sustainability for any nation hinges on three pillars: access, affordability and environmental responsibility. All three pillars are essential, and we cannot cede one pillar for another — we must strive to achieve all three.

But the energy challenge begins with access. The global energy challenge for the coming 50 years will be to meet the needs of 2 billion more people globally — doubling demand for energy — while reaching those who live in abject energy poverty today. We will need every megawatt and megatherm we can produce. So we must focus on access and affordability, and all the while not compromising environmental responsibility. So how can this be accomplished?

The International Energy Agency has projected that nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels by 2050. These fuels are abundant and affordable. And through the deployment of advanced natural gas combined-cycle technologies, we have improved not only the cost profile for power generation, but also the efficiency and environmental footprint. Natural gas has led the growth of new generation capacity in the U.S., as it provides the most effective pathway toward realizing comprehensive energy sustainability for today — and into the future.

So, what of our future? We can all see the decarbonizing of our society as a critical issue — and it is of major focus all over the world. I don’t happen to believe that CO2 is the end-all, be-all of environmental concerns, for there are equally important challenges in water and land and a host of other impacts globally. But we surely have the evidence that CO2 contributes to the global greenhouse gas footprint, so we must address this in any comprehensive strategy.

The deployment of renewables — at a significant global scale to provide energy access to those in need and to impact our environment – is essential. We need an optimized integration of those all energy options, rather than a choice of one or the other.

This optimization can only be achieved if coupled with the necessary capacity, system flexibility and reliability of supply that meet the needs of true energy sustainability. Mass deployment of renewables without a natural gas baseload and shoulder capacity — to handle energy supply and consumption variances — is simply not mature thinking. Systematic and holistic integration of renewables will only be achieved if access to energy is truly improved, with energy continuing to be affordable and cost competitive. Playing a one-note strategy of forcing renewables into our energy mix, without an honest assessment of the impacts, is not true energy sustainability. That’s the path that some in the world today have already taken — and it’s not a good story! Forced renewable portfolio standards have been prematurely pushed into the German and overall EU market, which has created cost and supply reliability disruptions and challenges — along with a 20 percent increase in the use of coal to provide the necessary backup to meet energy reliability requirements.

Some day we will achieve a decarbonized world. Battery storage, system capability improvements, nuclear advancement — these are all transformations we should continue to pursue. But as we do, let’s not lose our minds and turn away from the dramatic improvements that natural gas-supplied power can provide — maybe not everywhere in the world, but certainly in the U.S., where abundant and affordable gas can advance the cause right now. It’s an honest and thoughtful pursuit of real energy sustainability.


The opportunities and challenges in achieving a clean energy future are featured in the fifth episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “Energy on the Edge,” directed by Akiva Goldsman. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.

(Top image: Courtesy of Getty Images)


Charles McConnell headshotThe Honorable Charles McConnell is Executive Director, Rice University Energy and Environment Initiative. He previously served as Assistant Secretary Of Energy for Fossil Fuels at the US Department of Energy.





All views expressed are those of the author.

Natural gas may have a supporting role to play in our transition to a low-carbon energy future, but renewables and efficiency are the real stars.

Natural gas has a potential role to play in lowering electricity costs, reducing carbon pollution and helping us transition away from coal to more renewable energy. But too much natural gas can be problematic. The solution is more clean energy, and an appropriate role for gas — one that makes our move to a low-carbon future easier, not harder.

Risks and Rewards

While natural gas can bring rewards, strong evidence suggests being too reliant on it poses numerous, complex risks for the environment and consumers.

Natural gas extraction, distribution and storage can result in leakage of methane, a powerful global warming gas, diminishing the climate advantages of natural gas over coal. Natural gas production — particularly hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — can present serious risks to public health and the environment, including chemical contamination of drinking water and air pollution.

Similarly, while natural gas has recently helped lower prices for consumers, higher levels of gas-fired electricity pose other financial risks for consumers. With a long history of price volatility, natural gas is subject to much greater price swings than other clean energy sources. Relying too heavily on natural gas can also expose consumers to higher costs beyond simple prices swings. For example, billions of dollars in natural gas infrastructure is likely to be under-utilized — or even abandoned — as renewables continue to outcompete gas in affordability.

Because utilities pass the costs of high fuel prices, carbon pollution and idled plants on to their customers, the risks associated with overreliance on natural gas can really add up for consumers. A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that two-thirds of U.S. states may be putting their electricity consumers at financial risk because of natural gas overreliance.

How Renewables and Efficiency Can Help

The good news is there’s a path toward reduced reliance on natural gas as we move away from coal generation. Both renewable energy and energy efficiency are reliable and effective solutions for limiting environmental and financial risks from natural gas.

A recent study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that every state has the potential to deploy cost-effective renewable energy.

Energy efficiency has consistently shown itself to be a low-cost — even the lowest-cost — resource for meeting electricity needs. A survey of state programs by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that efficiency was cheaper than any supply option — half the cost of electricity from natural gas combined cycle plants.

Toward Truly Clean Energy

So how do we get to a future with considerably more renewables and efficiency?

Both state and federal policies have been key in the incredible progress of renewables over the last decade. Renewable electricity standards in 29 states have required that utilities to increase the portion of their electricity supply coming from renewables. At the federal level, production and investment tax credits have encouraged widespread adoption of wind and solar, in particular.

For efficiency in the electricity sector, major drivers have occurred at all government levels. Obligations on utilities to reduce demand, residential and commercial building codes, incentives for efficient products, and appliance and efficiency standards on products ranging from refrigerators to light bulbs have all helped Americans do more with less.

And so much more is possible; a range of policy extensions or adoption at the federal level would help preserve the enormous momentum of today’s renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts — and help us reduce risks of natural gas overreliance at the same time.

One “bird in the hand” for energy progress is the Clean Power Plan (CPP), our nation’s first-ever limits on power plant carbon pollution. The final plan, released in August, wisely stems the rush to natural gas by encouraging states to invest in clean energy sooner rather than later.

Natural Gas’s Bounded Role

One challenge is that natural gas can crowd out renewables, due to outdated policies for management of the electric grid, for exampleStrong climate and energy policies — as well as regulatory oversight — can help natural gas move into a useful but more limited role in our clean energy future, particularly in providing grid flexibility to enable higher levels of renewable energy.

As the nation moves away from coal, heading toward a diverse supply of low-carbon power sources — primarily renewable energy and energy efficiency, along with a balanced role for natural gas — is likely to be much better than a wholesale switch to natural gas.

The key is to avoid overcommitting to investments in natural gas that increase risks in the near term and won’t pay off in the long term. We should be investing in ways that give us enough flexibility to allow natural gas to complement low-carbon sources like wind and solar — not stand in their way.


The opportunities and challenges in achieving a clean energy future are featured in the fifth episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “Energy on the Edge,” directed by Akiva Goldsman. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.

(Top image: Courtesy of Getty Images)


john-rogers-headshotJohn Rogers is a Senior Analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. 





All views expressed are those of the author.