Battle lines drawn between natural gas and renewable energy


Coal is dead (or dying), but the fossil fuel industry is not:

For years, environmental activists and liberal policymakers fought to force utilities to reduce coal use to curb emissions and climate change. As the use of coal fades, the battle lines are rapidly shifting, with the proponents of a carbon-free grid facing off against those who champion natural gas, an abundant fuel that produces about half the greenhouse gas emissions that burning coal does.

Coal plants supply less than 20 percent of the country’s electricity, down from about half a decade ago. Over that same time, the share from natural gas has doubled to about 40 percent. Renewable energy has also more than doubled to about 20 percent, and nuclear plants have been relatively steady at around 20 percent.

I overheard a conversation recently about solar energy vs coal-fired power plants, and both of the people said they hoped solar energy would be become cheaper than gas or coal one day in the future. At which point I interrupted to explain that day was already here. "I haven't heard anything about that. Are you sure?" Yes, I am sure:

Proponents of renewable energy note that solar panels are increasingly the cheapest source of electricity. Solar panels can deliver power to 650 homes for one hour — one megawatt-hour in industry jargon — at $31 to $111 a megawatt-hour, according to Lazard, the investment firm. By comparison, natural gas peaking plants, which utilities can turn on and off quickly to meet surging demand, deliver power at $122 to $162 a megawatt-hour.

A report in June by the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that by 2035, the U.S. electric grid could get 90 percent of its power without greenhouse gas emissions while lowering electricity rates. To do that, the country would have to increase its use of renewables, energy storage and transmission lines while closing all coal plants and slashing natural gas use by 70 percent.

Some lawmakers argue that utilities are wasting billions of dollars by investing in natural gas plants that will have to be shut down before their useful lives end.

“Fighting the transition is not going to stop the transition,” Dennis Wamsted, an analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said. “Economically, it will happen inevitably.”

Fighting that transition may not stop it, but it could slow it down. And that will very likely be devastating to our planet's climate:

The Antarctic Peninsula, which is the part of the continent closest to South America, experienced a record heat wave of sorts in early February. On Feb. 9, a weather research station on Seymour Island reached a temperature of 69.3 degrees (20.75 Celsius), which if verified would be the ice-covered continent’s hottest temperature on record.

This beat out a likely record set just days earlier when, on Feb. 6, Argentina’s Esperanza Base on Antarctica’s Trinity Peninsula reached 65 degrees (18.3 Celsius).

The warmth during early February comes against the background of sharply increasing temperatures linked to human-caused climate change, with melting glaciers and vulnerable floating ice shelves the subject of increasing concern to scientists and policymakers alike. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming parts of the globe.

In all, the island lost four inches of snow cover in this one warming event, Pelto said. This amounted to about 20 percent of the seasonal snow accumulation in the region.

“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” Pelto said. “You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.”

Forget about Siberia; Antarctica is the coldest region on our planet. If a substantial amount of that ice melts, we will measure the sea level rise in meters, not millimeters.