Wind and solar energies are on the rise around the globe. Falling prices and proactive government policies are the reason. But that progress is not enough to offset the effects of climate change: wildfires and hurricanes. Because renewables are intermittent, though, they need a back-up. Enter natural gas.
The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook underscores the theme that governments must act to make the world greener, all to combat climate change. Notably, coal-heavy China and India are actively pursing sustainable goals. The analysis, released last week, glosses over the role that natural gas will play in this evolution. In other words, modern plants kick-on almost instantaneously if the wind dies down or the sun does not shine.
“When we look at the future of gas, it is there for the long term,” says Amit Kulkarni, general manager for product management at GE Power in Atlanta, in an interview. “There are more renewables coming onto the grid and we will see more flexible natural gas plants — those that can turn up-and-down at a much faster rate.”
GE says that 61% of all new power plant installations through 2026 are expected to be renewables. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a 1% increase in “fast-reacting” fossil fuel technologies leads to a .88 percent increase in renewables over the long run.
Indeed, solar photovoltaic and wind technology prices have nosedived. Rooftop solar panel prices have fallen by 80% since 2010, says the International Renewable Energy Association. Wind turbine prices have dropped by 38% since 2009, it adds. Meantime, the International Energy Agency’s outlook has renewable energy growing from a quarter of the globe’s electricity mix today to 40% by 2040.
The agency does say that coal will remain the largest energy source for power markets. Natural gas will be the second largest.
Despite the lack of a commitment to the climate cause by the United States, the biggest coal-consuming countries are still beefing up their renewable goals. China, in fact, makes up half the world’s coal use. But the energy agency’s world outlook says that its coal consumption will peak in 2025 while renewables will surpass coal usage there by 2040.
Emissions are “Locked-In”
The energy agency cautions, though, the average coal plants in Asia are 11-years-old. That compares to 40 years in the United States. To that end, its outlook says that a third of the global CO2 emissions are already “locked in.”
“We have reviewed all current and under-construction energy infrastructure around the world – such as power plants, refineries, cars and trucks, industrial boilers, and home heaters – and find they will account for some 95% of all emissions permitted under international climate targets in coming decades,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, in a release. “This means that if the world is serious about meeting its climate targets then, as of today, there needs to be a systematic preference for investment in sustainable energy technologies.”
Along those lines, energy agency says that carbon capture, utilization and storage will be necessary to meet climate objectives. Right now, this technology is expensive and nascent. According to the adviory firm Wood McKenzie, carbon capture accounts for 1% of all emissions reductions. That needs to change.
“(C)arbon pricing may be part of the solution to incentivize carbon capture and storage development,” Wood McKenzie says.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, generally, agrees with the International Energy Agency’s findings. It’s report, issued in October, says that keeping temperature increases to 1.5% by mid century won’t be enough to avert environmental catastrophes. To make matters worse, at the current pace, such temperature rises could be greater than 3%. Adding green energy at an aggressive pace is therefore not an option, it concludes.
With that, U.S. businesses have already procured nearly 4,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind and solar capacity, which breaks 2015’s numbers by nearly 750 MW. Collectively, they have bought 13,000 MW of green power. The goal is 60,000 MW by 2025, says the Wind Solar Alliance.
The most progressive enterprises, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, include Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp., Google, Apple and Bank of America. Companies can either buy renewable power in the form of power purchase agreements, invest directly in those projects or own and operate them outright.
Greater demand for renewables is a good thing. The fuels, generally, does not have a carbon footprint and it helps limit the potential harm of climate change. But more demand means more pressure on the grid to reliably deliver electricity. And therein is the role for modern natural gas plants — to kick on when the weather does not permit. It’s the reality that climate activists must come to grips, for years to come.