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Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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Webinar Recap: Shale Gas’ Potential Role in A Clean Energy Future

By Bruce Ho

On Tuesday, February 12, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy invited Jeffrey Logan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to present a webinar on “Natural Gas and U.S. Electric Power Futures” as part of our ongoing Policy Workshop Webinar Series on Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development.

In his presentation, Mr. Logan discussed research that he recently completed through the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA), a partnership between NREL and five universities, on “Natural Gas and the Transformation of the U.S. Energy Sector: Electricity.” The JISEA report helps answer some key policy questions about shale gas, including: (1) the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from shale gas as compared to conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels; (2) the need for new regulations and best management practices; and (3) the role that shale gas could play in the U.S. power sector – including a transition to a clean energy future – over the next several decades.

You can watch Mr. Logan’s full presentation below, in which he discusses the potential role of shale gas in a variety of U.S. power futures (i.e., Chapter 4 of the JISEA report). You can also download his presentation slides here and the full JISEA report here.

The Role of Natural Gas in U.S. Electric Power Futures from YCELP on Vimeo.


While Mr. Logan covered a variety of potential shale gas futures, I will focus the rest of this post on the potential role of shale gas in meeting a clean energy future, which is a topic that I also addressed in a previous entry.

The Role of Shale Gas in a Clean Energy Future

If we look at clean energy within the context of climate pollution, the question of whether shale gas can play a role in a clean energy future has two parts: (1) What are the lifecycle GHG emissions associated with shale gas? (2) What effect will shale gas have on adoption of even cleaner, renewable energy, such as wind and solar? EDF’s Dr. Ramon Alvarez discussed the first issue, which is largely a question of methane leakage, with our webinar participants last fall. Because you can review his webinar and a summary of it here, I won’t re-hash methane leakage issues again in this post, but I will note that Chapter 1 of the JISEA report includes interesting new research on methane leakage, and is well worth the read.

In his presentation last Tuesday, Mr. Logan looked at the second question and presented some fascinating model results that can help answer whether shale gas is likely to coexist with, complement, or crowd out the development of renewable energy. To address this issue, JISEA modeled a power sector future subject to a Clean Energy Standard (CES), which is a policy that reduces power sector GHG emissions by requiring that a certain percentage of total power production comes from clean energy and then ratcheting up this percentage over time. A CES is similar to a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), but unlike an RPS, a CES also counts nuclear energy and natural gas toward its clean energy target.

The CES modeled by JISEA would require that 80% of all energy come from clean sources by 2035 and 95% from clean sources by 2050. Because natural gas is not carbon-free, a natural gas power plant would receive less credit toward meeting the CES targets than a wind or solar farm. The crediting system that JISEA modeled would work as follows:

  • Renewable energy and nuclear energy would receive full credit (i.e., 100%) toward meeting the CES targets.
  • Natural gas combined-cycle plants would receive 50% credit.
  • In the future, if carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is developed, then natural gas with CCS installed would receive 95% credit while coal with CCS would receive 90% credit.
  • All other power plants (e.g., coal without CCS) would receive no credit (i.e., 0%).

Here’s an example: in a hypothetical year, if total power output is 100,000 MWh, of which 40,000 MWh is from renewable energy, 10,000 MWh is from nuclear, 30,000 MWh is from natural gas combined cycle, and 20,000 MWh is from coal, then the percentage of clean energy would be 65%: (40,000 * 1 + 10,000 * 1 + 30,000 * 0.5 + 20,000 * 0) / 100,000 * 100% = 65%. On the other hand, eliminating all of the coal and replacing half of it with renewable energy and half with natural gas combined cycle would raise the percentage of clean energy to 80% – i.e., the goal for 2035. The numbers here are examples only, but show that natural gas could play a role in a CES future.

In fact, JISEA’s model, which is more sophisticated than my hypothetical and, among other things, includes modeling and optimization of energy system costs, suggests that natural gas could play a key role in meeting the CES through about the year 2030. At that point, generation from natural gas would start to decline, though not disappear. As the CES targets rise, gas’ 50% credit would be too low to contribute meaningfully to the targets, and it would be necessary to replace some gas plants with even cleaner renewable or nuclear energy. (JISEA’s model suggests that renewable energy would fill in most of the gap here because it would be more economical than more expensive nuclear energy.) However, the model also suggests that CCS could become a technologically and economically viable option in later years, out past 2040, which would allow natural gas to make a resurgence later in combination with CCS, which would be credited at 95%.

Two additional modeling results are worth noting here. First, JISEA’s results suggest that meeting the hypothetical CES, including the highest clean energy targets in the later years, would increase electricity prices by only about 8-10% (to say nothing of the benefits that society would gain from cleaner energy, most notably the chance to avoid the worst potential impacts of climate change). Thus, a clean energy transition is not only environmentally necessary but also economically achievable. Second, in a separate model, JISEA looked at the potential impact of additional environmental and social protections (modeled as an increase in the price of natural gas) to reduce or eliminate many of shale gas production’s negative impacts, and found that these protections would not appreciably reduce future shale gas use. In other words, more environmentally and socially responsible shale gas production would not require an end to the shale gas boom. These results support efforts to develop shale gas in a more responsible manner, such as those discussed by Southwestern Energy’s Mark Boling in our webinar last month.

The Role of Shale Gas Today

JISEA’s modeling provides support for the idea that shale gas, if developed responsibly, could be a “bridge” to a clean energy future, but does so within the context of a yet-to-be-adopted CES. What about in the context of today’s power sector in which carbon remains a largely unregulated pollutant?

On this point, Mr. Logan provided both a pessimistic and an optimistic vision. The pessimistic vision is that without carbon policies, if natural gas prices remain low and renewable energy does not become cheaper, cheap natural gas could well stall the future development of renewable energy. Mr. Logan noted, for example, that high oil prices in the 1970s and early 1980s led to significant renewable energy growth, but when oil prices later crashed, renewable energy slowed substantially. The optimistic vision is that while natural gas prices have been low for the past few years, renewable energy – particularly wind, but also solar – continues to grow rapidly, suggesting that advancements in renewable energy technologies are simultaneously reducing the costs of renewables and allowing these clean energy sources to compete in the marketplace.

Whether current trends will continue, however, is hard to know, and while JISEA’s models suggest that shale gas could possibly play a role in a clean energy future, getting there efficiently and in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will almost certainly require policies that account for the full climate impacts of our energy choices.

Next Time in Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development

The Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development webinar series will next consider shale gas issues from a state perspective with a presentation by Tom Hunt from the State of Colorado’s Energy Office on “The Future of Oil and Gas Production in Colorado.” Mr. Hunt’s webinar, which will take place on Thursday, March 7, from 1-2pm EST, will examine the history, economic impacts, policy responses, and future of oil and natural gas production in Colorado, and will focus on how Colorado is seeking to access the economic and energy security benefits of oil and gas production while honoring the environmental protection and diverse property uses that the state’s citizens value.

To register for this webinar, please click here. As always, the webinar will be free and open to the public, but registration is required to participate.

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