In 2021, Developers and Powerplant owners plan to bring on 39.7 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity and retire 9.1 gigawatts in generating capacity (graphs 1 and 2). Out of the 30.6 net gigawatts of generating capacity remaining, the top three contributors are 70% from wind and solar, 16% from natural gas, and 3% from a nuclear reactor. This number excludes individual efforts via rooftop solar panels. Rather, it includes large scale operations.
In addition, of the total retirements, 86% will be coal and nuclear. Coal, in the past, has been touted as a bridge fuel to renewable energy. However, it was replaced quickly with natural gas due to natural gas producing approximately half as much carbon dioxide per square unit of energy compared to coal. What does this mean? Natural gas is the logical fuel to move us towards an energy transition. Although there will be natural gas retirements, the overall net gigawatt increase for the natural gas piece will continue to experience positive growth as will renewables.
The Power of Natural Gas
Natural gas does continue to have a much larger base. For instance, looking back in time to 2005 (graph 3), you can see where wind and solar energy output were basically zero, while hydropower remained steadily below 40,000 gigawatts of power. In the same year, natural gas was responsible for generating around 60,000 gigawatts of power. The United States was still heavily relying on coal at the time to generate the majority of its power.
As you can see coal was responsible for over 160,000 gigawatts of power in 2005. Jump to the year 2016, and you can really see the transition from coal to natural gas. In fact, over the next five years since 2016, a total of 48,000 gigawatts of coal capacity has retired. In that same year, nuclear and hydropower plateaued to remain producing basically the same amount of energy they were in 2005. Wind and solar, however, did have a small but significant increase in power generation.
Mind the Gap
For those wanting to quickly get rid of natural gas to usher in the renewable era because of actual and perceived negative environmental effects from natural gas, they should know that there are consequences to an already fragile economy if the transition is too quick. It is easy to identify a problem; the hard part is to find a solution to the problem. There is a lot of discussion about getting rid of fossil fuels including natural gas, but little conversation on the reality of the gap that would be created in power generation if that were to happen.
That gap defined as price would include potential blackouts and higher electricity costs in your everyday life. Heat, transportation, light, the car you drive in, would all be impacted. In 2019, electric car sales made up less than 3 percent of the total car sales. That means that more than 97 percent of car sales were made up of cars that run on gasoline. Additionally, much of the electricity that is generated for electric cars is generated by single and combined cycle power plants, the majority of which utilize natural gas as the main energy source.
‘It is easy to point out the issue, but it takes much more thought, effort, and team-work to find a solution.’
So, why should we utilize natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewables? There are several good reasons. The fiberglass used to make wind turbines is made using petrochemicals. The steel used in wind turbines is made from iron ore in a blast furnace, powered by natural gas. The materials are transported by vehicles, many of which are powered by natural gas. Natural gas is also being used as a back-up system to generate electricity in areas utilizing wind turbines and solar panels. Why? Well, the wind does not blow 100% of the time nor does the sun always shine.
Step By Step
So what happens when countries try to make a drastic turn from one path to another? China is a great example of what happens when trying to change too quickly, drastically, and with little planning. In 2017, Beijing, in an ambitious plan to reduce pollution, banned the use of coal for heating during the winter. This lead to many people going without heat. The majority of the people looked to what was allowed, natural gas. This created a demand so high that it lead to a natural gas shortage, compounding the problem. The Chinese environmental ministry quickly made a U-turn, saying that certain areas would be allowed to burn coal for heating during the winter, stating that their number one principle should be to keep people warm.
Let’s make a final point. It is easy to point out an issue, but it takes much more thought, effort, and team-work to find a solution. It will take knowledge, money, and time in order to transition in a significant way from energy powered from fossil fuels to energy powered primarily from renewables. In the meantime, natural gas will continue to serve as the cleanest and most economical bridge-fuel available.
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