The Wall Street Journal ran a good article last week on the "shale gale," a reference to the sweeping impact that newly discovered shale-gas reserves are having on energy policy. New cheap shale gas has created a tempting diversion for policymakers. They struggle to balance the low cost of natural gas against important but hard to value principles like energy security and environment. Because they make the choices that will shape our future energy infrastructure, how they respond will determine an awful lot about the future of energy.
The story of the shale-gas find is dramatic. Three years ago, the conventional view was the US was running out of natural gas. Then a few innovative developers, using drilling methods that fracture underground rock formations, discovered a way to release trapped natural gas. Their efforts unlocked massive new reserves literally beneath our feet. In a stunning reversal, conventional wisdom was turned upside down. Estimates vary, but the bottom line is that there now appears to be anywhere from 40 to 100 years or more of natural gas reserves that can be tapped at low cost to meet US demand (assuming current usage rates).
This puts the energy industry and policymakers in a pickle--something I saw firsthand recently at conference in Vail where a number of federal and state regulators spoke frankly about the issue. On the one hand they want to deliver the best cost enegy to ratepayers. On the other hand, they have a responsibility to make long term strategic decisions that ensure our energy supply is diverse, secure, and clean.
The easy choice is to let the siren song of cheap natural gas lead us into a massive build-out of new gas-fired power plants. It's politically easy to make decisions that result in abundant low cost electricity. And on the surface it seems more environmentally responsible too. If we replace coal with gas we'll end up a lot cleaner too, because efficient gas turbines create roughly half the amount of carbon emissions of a typical coal-burning plant.
But switching everything over to gas is not the responsible choice. It would make us overly dependent on a single fuel source. It would raise the pace at which we use gas, and thereby reduce the lifetime of a strategically valuable supply. And while it's cleaner than coal, gas is still a source of carbon emissions and much less clean than renewable sources like wind and solar.
The truth is we need a diversified energy supply that balances cost against other benefits like energy security, stability, and environmental benefits. The most compelling vision of what we could accomplish over time sounds like this: we leave the old nukes in place, retire the old coal plants, build as much renewables as we can take, and fill the rest with natural gas. This approach would result in a grid that is robust, diverse, clean, and affordable for generations to come.
Our role in all of this? We need to support our policymakers in making the right choices so they're not tempted to go with the cheap payoff of a big gas frenzy. It's the right thing do to for energy and for generations of energy users who will inherit the result of the choices we make today.
PS: As I've blogged before, natural gas and renewables play very well together. Natural gas fired turbines can be ramped up and down quickly, answering the increasing need for dispatchable resources to balance rising intermittent renewable sources. It's very important to note that renewables and gas are not mutually exclusive . The choice is between an all-gas world vs. a symbiotic world which gas a renewables are integrated in a robust, diverse generating system.