Clean energy is catching up to natural gas faster than previously predicted, in both price and reliability, David Roberts reported last month in Vox magazine. Will West Virginia be poised to benefit?
Power plants have been switching to natural gas for years as the price of gas has fallen, especially compared to coal. Second, gas burns cleaner than coal (if you don’t worry about methane escaping somewhere in the production process). Earlier estimates made natural gas the “bridge fuel” to some distant point in the future when unreliable wind and solar might catch up, someday, maybe. In the meantime, traditional fuels would provide the reliable power source for when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind doesn’t blow or electricity demand outstrips those sources.
But Roberts reports: “Around 2015, though, just five years into gas’s rise to power, complications for this narrative began to appear. First, wind and solar costs fell so far, so fast that they are now undercutting the cost of new gas in a growing number of regions. And then batteries — which can ‘firm up’ variable renewables, diminishing the need for natural gas’s flexibility — also started getting cheap faster than anyone expected. It happened so fast that, in certain limited circumstances, solar+storage or wind+storage is already cheaper than new natural gas plants and able to play all the same roles (and more).”
Roberts points out that natural gas prices will continue to fluctuate and probably rise from the extreme lows of recent years. By 2035, it might be cheaper to build new renewable-power plants with storage than to continue operating an existing natural gas plant.
On price, Roberts cites the consultant Lazard, which, as of 2017, found that wind is the cheapest energy, and utility-scale solar energy competes with the cheapest natural gas. Regions vary, so wind is cheaper in the Midwest, while solar is better in the Southwest.
As batteries improve and allow utilities to store power for peak needs, gas power plants are looking less attractive, and that is just on price.
Power companies and some regulators are starting to notice. In Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada, for example, there are proposals for new renewable-energy plants. In Colorado, an energy company offered a plan to close two coal plants, skip the gas stage and replace them directly with clean energy sources.
If you care about reducing carbon emissions to prevent the worst of potential climate change over the next 80-some years, these zero-carbon renewables look even better. The difference between a degree or two of overall global heating for today’s preschoolers is a big one. It will be measured in millions of people, availability of fresh water, crop failures, hunger and the resulting violent conflicts.
Human efforts to curb their biggest carbon emitters make a difference. Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal reported that carbon emissions from the biggest polluters — power generation and transportation — did go down over the past 10 years, as power plants switched from coal to other sources, mostly gas. Emissions from power plants actually dropped below those from transportation. What people do and the policies they enact matter.
So, how do West Virginians get in on this action? There are some solar companies out there, installing panels and batteries at homes and businesses. That’s a good start, but who is making the panels and researching and manufacturing these ever more efficient batteries? Which state leaders are wooing and wowing renewable-energy companies, or better yet, making it easier for West Virginians to learn those trades and set up shop? Those sound like good jobs, with a future.