AABE Blog

The Great Compromise

Submitted by: Chris Nalls

The late American poet James Russell Lowell wrote, “[c]ompromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof; it is a temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.” I respectfully beg to differ. Compromise is how the ideal and the reality find common ground.
The American energy portfolio is the product of compromise between economic viability and environmental sustainability. Traditional coal combustion is too carbon inefficient to meet our current demands and photovoltaic power is too costly for most power applications. In between those two extremes, at the heart of our great compromise, lies natural gas.

Roughly 23 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by natural gas. That percentage is certain to increase as natural gas prices have plummeted to a 10-year low in the midst of the shale drilling boom. The price of natural gas is a mere 14 percent of its crude oil energy equivalent. Beyond price, the Natural Gas Supply Association projects that shale gas reserves are sufficient to meet at least 75 years of domestic demand.
On price per kwh, natural gas has already out classed American nuclear energy, and in terms of delivering greenhouse gas emission reductions per dollar invested, it dramatically out classes wind or solar. The capital cost per kwh of a typical combined cycle gas power project is just a fraction of that of wind farms, solar plants, hydroelectric dams, and geothermal plants.

Cheap electricity generation is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As gasoline prices climbs, both original equipment for and conversions to alternative fueled vehicles for both heavy and light duty applications will be in increasingly high demand. Liquefied and compressed natural gas stations are sprouting up across the country. Not only does natural gas lower the cost of home heating for tens of millions of our citizens and dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas has been dubbed a job creation machine. A 2011 IHC report estimated that the shale gas industry will employ 1.6 million workers by 2035. As a result of the lower direct cost and the indirect reduction in the cost of goods and services, the savings resulting from the increased use of natural gas will add an average of $2000 to the spending power of every household by that same date.

Environmentalist too can claim a victory in the natural gas boom. It is appreciably cleaner-burning than its fossil fuel counterparts. The EPA has noted that natural gas power plants produce half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides as traditional coal power plants. Recent EPA regulations will retire many coal plants, which are likely to be replaced by natural gas plants.
To be certain, natural gas has its drawbacks. Like all fossil fuels, it is nonrenewable. Its transport and generation produce air emissions. Furthermore, the hydraulic fracturing process by which much of it is extracted from shale is thought by some to raise environmental risks. (A topic to be addressed in a future entry focused exclusively on fracking).

While it may be clean, natural gas is not green. But if our objectives are to reduce the negative health impacts on our children, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce energy related costs for low and moderate income families, and to increase our energy independence all in the near term, then this is a pretty good deal. You can call it a compromise; I will call it a Win/Win.

Chris Nalls is a 3rd year law student at Georgetown University.

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