The Policy Challenge for Natural Gas and Solar

The annual analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration was released a few days ago in its report, U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2010.  Between 2009 and 2010, carbon emissions grew by 3.9%, approximately 12% above 1990 levels but below the level of 2007.  Nevertheless, the growth rate in carbon emissions exceeded the growth in GDP in contrast to its having lagged that growth rate for most of the last two decades.

The report pointed to coal, a carbon-heavy fuel as a primary source of the increase.  Coal releases almost 200,000 pounds of carbon for each billion BTUs produced or 43% more than natural gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s report points to a rise in 2010 of total energy consumption along with a rise in the carbon intensity of the energy supply used as responsible for the rise in carbon emissions.  The electric power sector’s demand in 2010 grew by 4.2% but emissions rose by 5.2%.  Power generation from coal increased from 45.7% of total power generation in 2009 to 46.1%, and the natural gas share of power generation rose to 22.6%, up about a half of a percent.

While coal will remain a very important U.S. and global source of energy for years to come, the advantage of alternatives is evident in the rise in 2010 carbon emissions.  One alternative to coal is natural gas, still a producer of carbon, but obviously a much lower one. To take advantage of natural gas will require that the public accepts the potential for this 100+ year estimated source of home-grown, U.S. energy.  The proportion of natural gas has been growing steadily in our energy generation mix, and some project that it will nearly double by 2030.  But reasonably widespread, negative public reaction to fracking has remained high without sufficient attention by policy-makers to the development of reasonable public policy that would allow the U.S. to realize the benefits of this abundant, lower-carbon source of energy from widespread shale beds.

But why, the reader may ask, shouldn’t we turn to renewable, carbon-free sources of energy like solar instead.  And I will admit to being a fan of solar.  Its costs have declined from $100 per watt per hour in the 1970s to $1 per watt today, and some believe that cost parity with carbon-based fuels is within reach.  University- and industry-based research into thin-film photovoltaic solar cells has been an important source of this reduction in cost.  But solar faces some of the same challenges as natural gas from shale beds in terms of policy and the public’s acceptance.  Chi-Jen Yang pointed to the considerable issues of policy and associated costs for solar other than the manufacture of the photovoltaic cells that hamper the widespread distribution of solar in Reconsidering Solar Grid Parity.  Addressing our U.S. energy needs demands that we accept a mixture of energy-generation sources, and calling on our elected representatives to address the need for sound public policy is a critical element along the way.


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