Great Volts podcast (Sept 29): All About Methane, with Sarah Smith of the Clean Air Task Force! A couple of critical matters discussed were left incomplete. After summarizing the facts on the out-of-control methane emissions in the extraction, refinement, and transport of shale oil and natural gas, the discussion largely focused on what can be done to make natural gas the cleanest in the world.

I get it that reliance on natural gas is not going away anytime soon. What I found missing in the podcast (maybe for a methane-part 2?) is that “making US natural gas the cleanest in the world”, is a dangerous artifice to grow US natural gas production when getting off natural gas “now” is ripe for the picking in electric generation. Continued progress in wind and solar, coupled with advances in battery storage, are now eclipsing gas generation in terms of cost and performance.

I’d like to highlight some very recent performance: The Texas grid operator ERCOT post-event data from the Feb disaster showed Texas renewables over-performed winter forecasts by 6.34 GW while gas underperformed by 15.8 GW. When partnered with distributed energy resources, beginning first with demand response and energy efficiency, we can cross the gas fuel “bridge”.

What killed coal was not the environment, but the economics from the technological progress in the extraction of gas and gas power plants. The same holds true today for gas generation: price point on RE+storage is close to if not equivalent the operating cost of new gas gen. That’s about half of the total cost of a gas power plant.

John Kerry, US climate czar said that US should not build anymore gas infrastructure b/c the US will be stuck with stranded assets in 10, 20, 30 years. Gas is increasingly a stranded asset now. Building new gas infrastructure – power plants, LNG facilities, and retail distribution lines paints the US and global communities into a deadly corner.

And yes, there is no single electric grid in the world that is being powered solely by RE+storage. But there are plenty of boots on the ground examples of RE+storage beating the pants off gas generation. What I am speaking to is the CUSP: the point of transition between fossil fuels and clean energy. Multiple studies indicate that U.S. utilities can reach 80+ percent carbon-free generation by 2030 without increasing costs or threatening grid reliability, even with electricity demand increasing from electric vehicles and retail conversion from gas to electric.

Before discussing solutions, I need to touch on liquified natural gas or LNG. The US position re LNG exports troubling to say the least. LNG exports have skyrocketed in past 12 months, up nearly one third, and are expected to double by 2030. DOE Secretary Granholm’s support of LNG at her confirmation hearing is particularly alarming. “LNG shipments are often bound for countries that would otherwise be using very carbon-intensive fuels for power generation and industrial production.”

What the hell is our country doing in this back to the future paradigm, “gas as the bridge fuel” (aka Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address). Yes, China and others are still building coal plants. But the baseline of comparison should no longer gas relative to coal. And, how about those massive tankers transporting LNG overseas, referred to by some experts as “floating bombs”?

We can kick our methane habit through cooperation versus competition and all hands-on deck. Key elements, actions include:

• Plug the leaks, cap abandoned wells, and turn down venting and flaring. Trump removed most compliance requirements – with the Biden administration trying to restore.

• Establish a climate emergency subsidy program, or maybe just passage of Biden’s infrastructure plan.

o Something akin to the federal government’s longstanding farm subsidy program that pays farmers to keep fields fallow. In other words, back off new shale oil!

• For electric utilities:

o Accelerate the depreciation of existing gas generation assets similar to what is being done with coal generation.

o Expand capitalization of assets to include purchase power renewable generation contracts, and distributed energy resources beginning with demand response and energy efficiency.

• Develop gas system transition plans, laying out smart managed paths to large changes in the gas industry.

• Use biomethane and hydrogen “renewable gas or RG” for sectors that cannot easily electrify. That is, some industries and portions of the vehicle market. Understand that RG is a limited resource and can still emit methane. Apply these three factors when considering RG:

o How far will it be piped? Focus on local uses to minimize transport.

o Is the methane captured greater than methane and CO2 releases?

o Is new infrastructure, notably pipelines, minimized?

In closing, I’d like to say, “thank you natural gas, for the role you have played the last decade as our bridge fuel, and please back off!” We are ready to crosse the bridge, don’t turn it into a highway to hell. I agree with the climate crisis principles of Bill McKibben 350.org: First, stop lighting coal, oil, gas, and trees on fire, as soon as possible. Second, don’t build anything new that connects to a flame.

We won’t have another chance at this. We are well into the middle of the end.

May 19th I debated an American Gas Association (AGA) representative on the role of natural gas in the clean energy economy as part of the K&L Gates law firm and Clean Tech Alliance quarterly debate series. The video recording is available at https://www.cleantechalliance.org/debates-at-kl-gates-series/.

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Avista Company, based in Spokane, Washington, filed its new plan, as reported in the Spokesman Review.


Does anyone know what this statement about future renewables actually means? "In the plan, Avista indicated it will serve 80% of its customers in the state with renewable energy beginning in 2022. It will increase that number by 5% every two years." What percentage of the energy to 80 percent would be renewable? Since most of its energy already comes from hydroelectric power, how much progress does this projection represent? Are there any numbers representing future investment in solar and wind?

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Hi! I always love Volts - but I found this episode confusing/lacking in a couple of places. First, the statistics of methane-vs.-CO2 warming seemed to change several times. Is methane the cause of 50% of warming? Now? Historically? Or is it half as much as CO2, now? (which Sarah Smith said later and seems more consistent with IPCC report). Anyway, worth clarifying those numbers.

And I was surprised that composting wasn't mentioned in the landfill discussion. As I understand it, this is one of the biggest reasons people are pushing for municipal compost, etc. -- to divert food & biological waste away from landfills where they generate methane, and into useful and stable forms. I'd have loved to hear discussion of that -- is this realistic? Scalable? A distraction? a 10% solution to the landfill issue or 50%? etc.

Thanks for all your great work! Sorry to only comment (here) for criticisms :) I save the love for Twitter usually.

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Great discussion. The next morning after hearing the podcast I opened the Spokane, WA paper to find my power utility promoting natural gas consumption: "We're On The Path To Cleaner Energy."

The notice continues:

"Wind and sun--both are powerful forces. It's why we've added more wind and solar power to our energy mix. But the wind does not always blow or the sun always shine. Thankfully, there's clean, reliable natural gas. It's an affordable choice that's always there when you need it. It's no wonder why 367,000 of our customers choose it for heat, hot water and cooking. Learn more at myavista.com/greener." Not a word about methane or greenhouse emissions from Avista. Not a word about home electrification. Not a word about the amount of solar and wind power planned, nor about the company's planned investments in this area. . .

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