Solar and Fracking: They Go Together Like Ham and Eggs

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David Roberts has an interesting post today summarizing a new report from Citi Research about renewable power and natural gas. Basically, it turns out they go together like ham and eggs.

Here’s the nickel summary: Renewable energy tends to be sporadic (solar only during the day, wind only when it’s windy, etc.), so if you rely heavily on renewable energy you need a secondary source that can be brought online and offline quickly to provide “peaking power.” It turns out that gas-fired plants fill this bill nicely. What’s more, as renewables expand even more, they start to eat into baseload power, and since baseload plants can’t switch on and off off quickly, they’ll no longer be economically viable and will get retired. That means even more natural gas.

The bad news here is that this means an ever expanding role for natural gas fracking. The good news is that it will mostly be replacing coal, so it’s a net benefit. What’s more, in the longer term, as renewables get ever cheaper and finally reach critical mass, there are ways to eliminate even most of the gas-fired plants:

The need for natural gas to play these two supporting roles [i.e., baseload and peak power] could be reduced and eliminated through a combination of wide geographic dispersion of renewables, a more robust grid, more energy storage, and more non-intermittent renewables like geothermal or biogas. But given how fast renewables are ramping up, and how far those other pieces are from being in place, natural-gas peakers are likely to play a key role for several decades to come.

….The message here is simple: take heart. Shale gas will not swamp and displace renewables, it will help them. Renewables will become cheaper than fossil fuels in the medium- to long-term. It’s happening now in some places, it will happen in others soon. Obviously the rise of renewables could be accelerated by policy, and should be. It won’t happen fast enough to avert the worst of climate change without a policy boost.

But it will happen. History is on the side of clean energy.

There’s much more detail at the link. It’s worth a read, because if this analysis is correct, it’s going to provide some major heartburn for environmentalists. Fracking, for all its dangers, may turn out to be the least of our various fossil fuel evils.

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