It’s America’s Fuel! It’s the Future! It is keeping cable TV networks afloat with a barrage of ads!
While natural gas does have a number of benefits, I still find it hard to completely jump on the bandwagon. Increased consumption of natural gas, for instance, could turn the U.S. into a net importer of it by 2030, according to a recent study from MIT.
History isn't encouraging. Back in the '80s and early '90s, Britain launched a “Dash for Gas” program after the discovery of deposits in the North Sea, according to Tony Meggs. Fields were exploited and the U.K. salivated at the idea of selling gas to Europe.
“In 2020, 70 percent (of gas) will be imported in Britain. [...] Some will come from ‘less than reliable’ suppliers,” said Meggs recently. U.K. energy policy is now dominated by “anxieties” about exports.
No OPEC exists for gas, but Russia and Iran have the largest supplies. So much for energy independence.
Meanwhile, the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracking remain unknown. So far, there’s no evidence of fracking fluids infecting water supplies, mostly because groundwater supplies are located several hundred feet above fracking operations. Still, Cornell’s Robert Howath has published a paper arguing that natural gas from fracking operations can be worse for the atmosphere than coal because of methane seepage into the atmosphere. Methane traps far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
And this week, I came across this gem in another report from MIT published in 2010:
While both EVs (electric vehicles) and NGVs (natural gas vehicles) have significant infrastructure requirements, there are major differences in their relative efficiencies. An NGV does not have comparable efficiency gains relative to electrification via natural gas generation. In general, 1,000 cubic feet (cf) of natural gas, converted to electricity, yields 457 miles in an EV. This same 1,000 cf in an NGV would only have a range of around 224 miles.
In other words, burning natural gas at a centralized power station and delivering it over the grid to a charging station for electric cars will take you twice as far because large-scale generators are simply more efficient than car-sized generators. (The passage comes from page 24 of the report.) A 2006 paper by Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard, the first two of the five people listed as founders at Tesla Motors, found natural gas vehicles less efficient than hydrogen, hybrids, gas, diesel and electrics.
A few weeks ago, General Electric underscored this point when it unfurled its FlexEfficiency 50 combined power plant, a 510-megawatt beast that sports a 61 percent efficiency factor. It can be coupled with solar thermal equipment that can boost the efficiency to 70 percent.
This is a good argument for natural gas power plants. But it is an even better argument against natural gas cars. One of the oft-heard claims for increasing production of natural gas is that CNG cars allegedly will help the U.S. wean itself off foreign oil (replacing it with foreign gas!). It's supposed to be the Gas Across America tour with T. Boone Pickens, who has personally lobbied for tax credits and other subsidies at the state and federal level for creating an infrastructure for CNG vehicles.
"When compressed into a transportation fuel, it offers the same benefits of gasoline- and diesel-power, but provides more advantages as a clean, affordable and American fuel that can help create U.S. jobs and lessen our country’s dependence on foreign oil," claims CNG Now!
A filling station for CNG cars can also run a few hundred thousand dollars, Sue Cischke, group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Company, told us in late 2009.
High expenses, worse mileage, high subsidies and a demand for imported fuel in two decades: you could argue CNG cars are the SUVs of the clean car market.
Yes, there are sound arguments for natural gas. Gas generates half the carbon dioxide of coal and more carefully controlled drilling operations could contain the problems pinpointed by Howath. It has also plunged to relatively low prices thanks to fracking. Moreover, replacing coal plants with combined cycle plants will help create a market for biomethane from manure deposits and landfills.
Fuel cells will also certainly benefit with greater natural gas production.
But it is equally true that gas prices will likely increase, that demand will begin to exceed domestic supplies, and that natural gas companies will seek subsidies that could far exceed anything given to the renewable industry. The traditional energy industry--see Fukushima, the San Bruno explosion, the BP oil platform disaster in the Gulf and the chronic coal mining disasters--has a dismal record in recent years for cutting corners at the expense of safety and caution too. The rush to frack will only increase the odds of accidents.
And gas, although it can help balance the output from solar and wind farms, will also make it more difficult for renewables to develop and gain market share. When the spigot begins to run thin, we will be in the same spot we were in six years ago -- that is, investing rapidly to revive the solar industry.
Again, natural gas has noteworthy properties, but I'm not sprinkling it on my corn flakes just yet.