Natural gas is no panacea
Even if we could obtain all the electricity we needed from cheap natural gas, should we? Or would doing so exacerbate energy and environmental problems in New England?
Obsess all you’d like about nuclear power, but the price of natural gas has doubled in less than a year, from below $2 per million BTUs to $3.80 — and it’s climbing. Anyone who thought the shale-gas revolution would bring an abundant supply of low-cost natural gas should think again.
Around the country, gas prices have varied by 300 percent in the past four years. Prices are climbing as increasing amounts of the fuel are used for electricity production, manufacturing (mainly chemical and steel plants) and transportation (trucks switching from diesel oil to natural gas). And if the Department of Energy gives companies the green light to begin exporting U.S.-produced natural gas to markets in Europe and Asia, the price will go higher. Already, some natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania is being exported to eastern Canada.
Nevertheless, relatively low prices have led to increased electricity production from gas plants in New England, reaching 50 percent of power use, three times what it had been in 2000. However, a scarcity of gas-pipeline capacity in the Northeast is causing a bottleneck in gas supply, which could result in electric power reliability problems.
When the demand for gas is high, the pressure in the pipelines becomes too low to distribute the gas to all users, and large users like electric-power generators are forced to reduce demand so home heating users are not impacted. New England’s independent system operator (ISO-NE), which manages the region’s electricity grid, has said the greatest risk to New England’s energy security is its increasingly heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity generation.
There’s only so much gas that’s available. When supplies become tight, as they typically do in the winter months with increased demand for home heating fuel, home heating distribution companies have priority. As a result, less gas is available for power plants, causing a sudden spike in electricity prices. When temperatures fell below normal in late January, the cost of electricity soared to $200 per megawatt-hour (Vermont Yankee’s normal cost of production is $4 per megawatt-hour), more than three times the normal price.
Our political leaders should appreciate the virtues of having a balanced mix of energy sources rather than over-reliance on natural gas. A combination of conservation and clean-energy production using gas, renewables and nuclear power is the best strategy. But keep in mind that solar and wind energy together accounted for less than 1 percent of electricity generation in 2012. They supply such a small share of the nation’s electricity that it will be many years before they can make a significant contribution.
Nuclear power, therefore, is critically important — both for economic and environmental reasons. New England’s nuclear plants (Vermont Yankee, Millstone, Seabrook and Pilgrim) provide one-third of the electricity, and it is the lowest-cost base-load power, next to hydro. Renewing the operating licenses of the Pilgrim and Seabrook plants should have high priority. Besides, nuclear plants don’t pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases.
The same cannot be said for natural gas. Although gas has half the carbon content of coal, gas plants emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More worrisome is methane, which is the largest component of natural gas and 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Methane comes from several sources, including flow-back water from hydraulic fracturing, gas processing at well sites, venting and flaring of natural gas, and fugitive emissions and pipeline leaks. Methane can potentially cancel out the carbon benefit of switching from coal to natural gas.
In the end, we have to decide whether to be seduced by and dependent on low-cost natural gas, its price volatility notwithstanding, and live with the global-warming emissions and pollution from burning gas, or understand that the price of natural gas also needs to reflect the environmental damage from airborne emissions and the acceleration of climate change.
Bob Leach is a retired radiation protection manager and senior reactor operator. He lives in Brattleboro.