As the Senate gets ready to take up legislation early next year that embraces cleaner, homegrown energy technologies, it’s important to remember the shortcomings of some of the sources we currently rely on. Half of our nation’s 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; it’s time to start moving these power plants to the junkyard, too.
Luckily, we don’t 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 year’s levels, which were painful to both residential and industrial consumers.
Gas prices have been extraordinarily volatile in recent years, peaking last year at $13 per thousand cubic feet before nose-diving below $3, but such roller-coaster rides may be a thing of the past. Producers say shale gas can be extracted in advance when prices are in the $6 range, and some existing wells can be profitable even at rock-bottom prices. With supplies available at predictable costs, long-term contracts between gas producers and consumers, similar to those seen in the coal industry, may re-emerge to allay customers’ concerns about price.
The economic payoffs from increased production are likely to be significant. A recent Penn State University study of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania concluded that development will pump $14 billion into the state’s economy in 2010 alone, growing to $25 billion by 2020, generating 98,000 jobs and close to $1 billion in state and local tax revenues. Shale deposits also have the political benefit of geographic diversity — from traditional gas-producing states such as Texas, Louisiana, Colorado and Kansas to coal states such as Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
The House-passed climate bill provides billions of dollars through 2025 for research and demonstration of carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology in coal plants — a worthy objective, and one that should be extended to gas plants — but we could also make real environmental and economic impacts right away. The Senate climate bill should:
As a first step, require increased use of natural gas generation where it can be dispatched reliably and affordably, ahead of pre-1970 coal-fired power plants.
Conduct an inventory of the coal fleet to determine which plants are candidates for retrofitting with advanced carbon-capture technology and which are more suited for repowering with natural gas.
Support gas research that focuses on reducing the costs and minimizing the environmental impacts of production.
Provide incentives for repowering the clunkers — converting dirty old coal plants to run on clean-burning gas.
Current federal policy support for natural gas is so weak it has prompted some gas advocates to dub natural gas the “Rodney Danger-fuel— of the U.S energy portfolio. In less challenging times this neglect was simply shortsighted and wrong. In a world where CO2 emissions threaten to alter irrevocably the world we live in, it borders on policy malfeasance. Natural gas can power our economy, clean up our air and reduce global warming emissions. We should take advantage of it now.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Timothy E. Wirth is the president of the United Nations Foundation and former undersecretary of State for global affairs. He represented Colorado’s 2nd district in the House from 1975 to 1987 and served in the Senate from 1987 to 1993.