As the Senate gets ready to take up legislation early next year that embraces cleaner, homegrown energy technologies, its important to remember the shortcomings of some of the sources we currently rely on. Half of our nations electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. Nearly a third of these plants were built before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. While a number of these plants have made improvements to address air pollution since this act took effect, there is a cleaner-burning alternative that is domestically abundant and available to replace coal not only at these pre-1970 clunkers, but also as a fuel source for new power generation. That alternative is natural gas.
These coal-fired power plants are old, energy-wasting, pollution-spewing antiques the very definition of clunkers. Earlier this year, we got almost 700,000 automotive clunkers off the road; its time to start moving these power plants to the junkyard, too.
Luckily, we dont even have to build new power plants to start phasing them out. The replacements already exist, and they run on natural gas cleaner burning in every way and suddenly abundant again in the United States.
There is more natural gas generating capacity in the United States than coal, but gas units operate less than one-quarter of the time, compared with three-quarters of the time for coal. Some regional statistics are even more startling. The Department of Energy recently reported that the gas utilization rate in 2008 was less than 13 percent in the Southeast stretching from Maryland to Mississippi.
That means we can shift from coal to natural gas with surprisingly little upfront cost. Underutilized gas capacity if dispatched in ways to ensure reliability and affordability represents a significant opportunity for near-term emissions reductions.
The House-passed climate bill would reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases 83 percent by 2050, consistent with what science is telling us we must do. To get there, we have many long-term options, such as widespread use of wind and solar energy and the capture and storage of emissions from coal-fired plants. What natural gas provides is a solution we can put to use immediately.
Until recently, the United States was facing a gradual decline in its gas supply. However, recent data from the Potential Gas Committee at the Colorado School of Mines points to massive quantities of gas from shale formations deep underground. These shale gas fields are not new, but techniques used by independent U.S. gas producers have improved to the point of suddenly making it economical to recover the gas.
The new data have increased estimates of U.S. natural gas resources by more than 60 percent, giving us 90 years of supply at current rates of consumption. That means production and use of gas could increase substantially without threatening to drive prices back up again to last years levels, which were painful to both residential and industrial consumers.