Operator at natural gas plant - Clean Power Plan's fatal flaw

There’s a fatal flaw in President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. He proposes to continue and even increase our reliance on natural gas for our energy needs when instead, we must be reducing our use of all fossil fuels.

Natural gas use is rising rapidly. Although natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide as coal in exchange for the same amount of energy, we actually use significantly more natural gas than coal.

The emphasis on reducing coal-burning for electricity generation has obscured the fact that the burning of natural gas in the U.S. for power, heating and industrial uses already contributes 84 percent of the CO2 emissions that coal burning does.

Natural gas produces enough carbon dioxide alone to cause us to exceed the 2 degrees Celsius target, a temperature rise that we must not exceed if we’re to avoid major climate disruption.

Moreover, this doesn’t count the danger from methane released by natural gas drilling and delivery, which makes natural gas an even greater climate threat than coal.

Natural gas: Another road to climate hell

Natural gas is methane and it leaks into the atmosphere at the gas wellhead and from the pipes and connections in the system that transports it to power plants. Studies generally reveal leakage rates of 2 to 5 percent. Methane is about 84 times as strong as carbon dioxide for the first 20 years before its strength tapers off slowly.

The inconvenient but alarming truth is that if you count the methane emissions, which Mother Nature certainly does, then a natural gas power plant is a more deadly greenhouse gas emitter than a coal-fired plant. Carbon dioxide emissions are cut in half but that reduction is wiped out by the methane emissions.

Beyond Coal has been a central goal of the environmental movement and it’s an essential step in combating climate change. But it’s a false step, unless the replacement for coal actually reduces greenhouse gases. Switching from coal to natural gas is just taking another road to climate hell. It has the same impact as switching from smoking Camel cigarettes to smoking Lucky Strikes—you get lung cancer just as quickly.

Renewable power: An obvious solution

The obvious “fix” for the Clean Power Plan is to count and limit greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas usage in the same way as is done for coal usage. Both coal and natural gas produce greenhouse gases that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority and indeed the duty to regulate. The 32 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 must apply to all power plant greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, not just to carbon dioxide.

Such a “fix” would require the utilities to go “Beyond Coal,” only with zero-emission power plants; that is, solar and wind power firmed up with modern storage technologies.

The exciting truth is that the renewables are cheaper! Today and tomorrow, renewable power will be lower in cost to the consumer throughout the life of a plant than any new coal or natural gas plant.

Media outlets have given great attention to the drop in the price of crude oil, but have largely ignored the dramatic plunge in the cost of solar and wind power. The fact that commercial technology is available to store solar and wind power for around-the-clock availability is virtually a military secret to the public.

Solar panels at plant - Clean Power Plan's fatal flaw

The main reason solar and wind sources will be lower in cost than fossil fuel or nuclear plants over time is that their fuel is free and it costs very little to operate them. Solar plants have no moving parts that break down and no cost of fuel that keeps increasing over time.

The truly low-cost power in the U.S. today comes from the dams we built 60 years ago that still produce hydro power. Like solar and wind, once their costs have depreciated, they start producing virtually free electricity.

A clean, cheap and all-electric America

An effective response to the climate crisis doesn’t require sacrifice or higher energy prices—quite the contrary. The modern-day “Thomas Edisons” have invented a “better mousetrap,” a 100 percent renewable energy supply. What’s needed are mandates that will require an ever-resisting electric utility industry to embrace this “better mousetrap” and build an all-electric America that’s both clean and cheaper for the consumer.

Power plants last a long time. Once built, utilities fight hard to keep them running for decades. This is why it’s heartbreaking to observe the fatal flaw in the new EPA rule that actually encourages the development of new natural gas power plants rather than assuring that all new plants are renewable.

The good news is that the renewable revolution underway is, in any event, largely driven by mandates in some 30 states requiring an ever-increasing percentage of renewable electricity. The life-or-death issue for the planet is whether that revolution will grow soon enough for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Climate experts tell us humankind must start reducing greenhouse emissions now by about 3 percent each year, so as to approach zero by 2050. Each year we fall short will require a tougher and tougher reduction in subsequent years.

We need to develop a broader vision that encompasses more than merely changing the way we make electricity. Burning oil and natural gas for transportation and heating caused about 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. last year. The efficiency standards enacted for motor vehicles are helpful, but totally insufficient. Any serious plan to address climate change must replace oil and gas with renewable electricity, one year at a time, over the next three decades. The necessary technology is already commercially available in the form of electric cars and railroads and electric heat pumps.

Yes, we can achieve an all-renewable, all-electric America by 2050. But such a vision lies in direct conflict with continuing to drill for more oil and gas and digging up the earth for more coal and uranium. We need to, instead, “Keep it in the ground.”

Let’s make peace with Mother Nature

Mother Nature is supplying this planet with super-abundant solar and wind power free of charge. At long last, we’ve learned to harness that free energy and convert it to a form usable for our high-energy civilization.

The climate crisis calls not for sacrifice, only that we the people enact laws that mandate an orderly switch to a free fuel supply that is at peace with Mother Nature.

S. David Freeman served as CEO of major public utilities, including Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and four others, for 40 years. He is currently a senior advisor to Friends of the Earth. Leah Y. Parks is a journalist in the electricity industry and an associate editor at ElectricityPolicy.com. They are the co-authors of All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future.

image 1: Operator in natural gas production industry via Shutterstock; image 2: solar plant via Shutterstock