Energy & Environment

Fossil fuels’ future role in the electricity system

Dan Farber

If you put aside their environmental impacts, fossil fuels are wonderful for generating electricity.  They are cheap, reliable, and currently in abundant supply.  But the environmental drawbacks are considerable, and the most serious one is their contribution to climate change. To deal with climate change, do we need to adopt an attitude of unremitting hostility to fossil fuels, everywhere and under all circumstances?  Or is a more nuanced approach warranted?

The issues are complicated and I haven’t reached any final conclusions.  But despite my strong belief in renewable energy, I’m not quite as negative about the future of fossil fuels as many environmentalists.

Fracking and expanded use of natural gas. In the U.S., the near-term question is expanded use of natural gas.  This raises two issues, in terms of climate change mitigation. First, as Jonathan Zasloff points out (here), methane leakage is a concern that needs to be addressed.  Second, expanded use of natural gas is a great benefit to the extent it crowds out coal, but a negative if it crowds out renewable energy.

It seems to me that the discussion of this issue has overlooked geographic distinctions. In states like California, where coal is not a big part of the mix for electricity generators, natural gas is a net negative in climate terms. So states that are not coal dependent should continue to reserve a big place for renewables and should not encourage natural gas. On the other hand, in a number of states (especially in the South), renewable capacity is limited, not to mention regulatory interest, so natural gas could make a very positive contribution by lowering reliance on coal.

So pursuing different policies about natural gas use in different places seems desirable. And if natural gas can replace coal rather than renewable energy, and if the benefits aren’t cancelled out by leakage, there is a good environmental case for natural gas.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

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Comments to "Fossil fuels’ future role in the electricity system":
    • John

      What schools are teaching students how to explore new technologies as far as power generation is concerned?

      Does UC Berkly have a program that explores and promotes modern thought in learning about non fossil fuel power generation?

      [Report abuse]

    • ragini

      In the U.S., the near-term question is expanded use of natural gas. This raises two issues, in terms of climate change mitigation. It seems to me that the discussion of this issue has overlooked geographic distinctions. In states like California, where coal is not a big part of the mix for electricity generators, natural gas is a net negative in climate terms.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      As long as we have “experts” going off in different directions on their own, IPCC shall never be able to influence enough politicians to protect future generations from unlivable climate change consequences.

      What is most imperative for California today is that we must build a combined fusion power/desalination plant in this decade or “350 or Bust” (ppm CO2) shall be nothing more than a disastrously failed dream that was trashed by “experts,” and California water supplies for drinking and agriculture shall quickly fail to be enough to meet our needs.

      So the IPCC appears to have lost the battle to protect our future, just like U.N. leader have lost to battle to accomplish Peace On Earth.

      No wonder preeminent evolutionary biologists have concluded that our mental machinery is failing to deal with the challenges of change in time to solve the most threatening survival problems we are experiencing today, and our “experts” keep proving that.

      [Report abuse]

    • Olivia

      First of all with the methane leakage there are more greenhouse emissions from fracking than with coal, because of the excessive leakage. Secondly there is no safe fracking. Six percent of well casings fail at the beginning of injections.

      You may think that’s only six percent (that six percent matters to those residents). Cement always cracks and always has cracked. How long do we need the cement to last? Forever– it need to last forever, to protect residents from being poisoned from what is being retained by the well casings.

      Additionally, it has been shown, time and time again, that fracking is unpredictable. It doesn’t just break open the shale, it often breaks open into the water tables, suddenly begins bubbling out up in some nearby stream or lake, or gushing out of a hillside. If you research, you will see this is all easily verified.

      Then there’s fluid migration. Things are fine, and then there’s some geological change, which fracking obviously causes, and the toxic fluid migrates. Or it migrates right away, as is often the case.

      People around fracking sites time and time again have the same illnesses. They cannot use their water, they cannot sell their homes, their insurance won’t cover fracking damage.

      One fracked well provides enough water for 152 households for a year. Can we say water shortage? No country in Europe is fracking. Everyone I’ve heard of has banned it or placed a moritorium.

      If we put the money we put into fossil fuels, into renewables, we’d have enough energy. Germany is 50% solar powered with much less sun than California and other parts of the U.S. The problem is no one owns the sun, so Big Oil and Gas can’t make their money.

      In Butler, PA they have to bring in bottled water to the residents. They can’t bathe in the fracked water or drink it. Now to metion the fumes from the drilling sites. So often animals, water life, and vegetation die around fracking sites. Please go to Dimock, PA or any number of states where there is heavy fracking and see how these people feel with monitors in their homes, in case their homes become explosive from the fracking fumes, and they need to evacuate. Please, please go see for yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you— go see.

      Also there is a strong correlation with seismic activity, if you look up Cal Tech’s long and lat, and then use google earth. You will see in many small and not so small eathquakes, that were never in certain areas, that there are fracking well there.

      [Report abuse]

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