That there is vanishingly little space for natural gas in a world that wishes to stay below 2.0°C average global warming is a fact that policy-makers—and Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination—must urgently heed, Vox climate specialist David Roberts argues in a recent column.
The story of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a fully green economy has, since the Obama years, permitted many a Democrat to present themselves as safely “moderate” on climate, Roberts states. But those days are long gone. “It’s now clear that if the world is to meet the climate targets it promised in Paris, natural gas, like coal, must be deliberately and rapidly phased out. There’s no time for a bridge. And clean alternatives are ready.”
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Citing a new Oil Change International report issued last week, Roberts lays out his five top reasons why natural gas “has got to go.” Notably, methane leakage isn’t one of them, since all would apply even in an impossible scenario where fossils brought their methane emissions to zero.
First, and foremost: the carbon budget necessary to hold warming well below 2.0ºC rules out gas—full-stop. “Never mind finding more—if we burn what we’ve already found, we’ll bust the budget,” Roberts writes. “Even if global coal use were eliminated overnight, burning the oil and gas we’re already digging up would blow the 1.5°C carbon budget.”
Moreover, because achieving 1.5ºC will require the world to be “half decarbonized by 2030, and fully decarbonized by 2050,” developed countries like the United States will actually need to accelerate their exit from fossil fuels to give developing ones some breathing space.
Which means that, with neither time nor atmospheric space for natural gas, “policy-makers must begin consciously encouraging and designing energy systems that run entirely on carbon-free resources.”
Roberts explains that “coal-to-gas switching doesn’t cut it” because replacing coal plants with natural gas-fired ones “doesn’t reduce emissions to zero”, which is the wrong answer in a world that urgently needs “zero-as-soon-as-possible.”
However, citing Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook for 2018, he notes that if “global coal use was phased out by 2035 and the market was otherwise left to work,” natural gas would expand to “fill about 70% of the void,” an outcome that would be “incommensurate with Paris targets.”
The third factor is that utility-scale wind and solar plants already provide the right answer compared to the cost of natural gas. Everywhere except Japan, “the relentless decline of solar and wind costs has made these technologies the cheapest sources of new bulk electricity in all major economies,” including India and China—and even in the U.S., “where the shale gas revolution has made gas cheap and abundant.”
Moreover, “renewables are already driving down prices in wholesale markets and causing existing natural gas plants to be run at much lower utilization rates than they were designed (and financed) for.” Arguments that gas is needed for grid reliability, never strong, grow ever more tenuous as battery storage, but also the design of power markets and power systems, advance rapidly to meet the needs of a decarbonized world.
“Renewable energy skeptics like to claim that natural gas power plants are required on the grid to balance out variable renewable energy, which comes and goes with the wind and sun,” Roberts writes, citing the OCI report. But the most commonly-built gas plants these days are combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facilities—favoured because they produce the cheapest power.
Yet combined-cycle plants are not nimble creatures able to “ramp up and down quickly to balance renewables,” he notes. On the contrary, they’re “meant to run at high utilization rates and provide bulk power. In other words, they compete with, rather than complementing, renewables.” The so-called “peaker” plants, designed to spin up rapidly to meet peak electricity demand, “are increasingly being beat out by batteries, which respond even quicker.”
While “for now, most utility-scale battery storage is in the four-hour range,” battery systems twice the size that can cover as much as 90% of peak demand are beginning to enter the market.
Roberts also flags OCI’s point that “the key to stable, reliable grids is not any individual technology but the design of power markets and power systems.” To ensure grid reliability during decarbonization, he says, policy-makers “need to redesign markets to encourage diverse portfolios of energy technologies, from distributed generation to storage and demand response.”
The problem is that any further development of natural gas will lock in carbon, Roberts warns. And with utilities “currently incentivized” to build capital-intensive projects like natural gas power plants that then don’t cost all that much to run, “even cheaper renewables won’t necessarily drive fossil fuel plants to retirement.”
Concluding with a glance at where the Democratic candidates for next year’s presidential nomination stand on natural gas, Roberts notes that Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Michael Bennet of Colorado both “acknowledge the imperative for the U.S. to completely decarbonize by 2050,” while Jay Inslee of Washington State “targets 2045 and sooner if possible.”
What such targets mean, Roberts stresses, is no room whatsoever “for expansion of natural gas infrastructure—wells, pipelines, export terminals, or power plants. That circle cannot be squared.”
So while the industry will not go quietly, he concludes, there is no “middle ground” from which to support the continued expansion of American natural gas assets. To do so would be “an admission of failure, an acknowledgment that the U.S. will not do its part to avert 2.0°C of warming and the horrors that will follow in its wake.”
And with the Democratic nomination heating up, “no candidate should get away with claiming otherwise.”