First step to reduce greenhouse emissions is replacing coal with natural gas

First step to reduce greenhouse emissions is replacing coal with natural gas
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Some have decided to start a “war” against fossil fuels, which include natural gas and coal. The concern seems to be caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases when using fossil fuel to produce electric power. 

Fossil fuel opponents seem to want a simple approach, namely the use of clean renewables such as wind and solar as a cleaner approach to greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere.

But this “clean approach” is actually very costly when all aspects of wind and solar costs are included.

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Let’s begin with the key components. U.S. electrical power is produced by:

  • natural gas (35 percent)
  • coal (28 percent)
  • nuclear power (19 percent)
  • hydropower (7 percent)
  • wind (7 percent)
  • solar (1 percent)
  • other fuels (3 percent) 

Recognizing that natural gas produces less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, a good start would be to use much more gas than coal. 

So, if about 14 percent of American coal were changed to a similar amount of natural gas we get a much larger amount of cleaner fossil fuels.

A huge negative with wind and solar electricity systems is that the wind does not always blow and nor the sunshine. At these down-times, other energy must be used to make up for the missing wind and sun.

In addition, renewables usually require substantial taxpayer funding and large amounts of land per energy needed. 

Now, let’s talk about the global electrical power situation. Specifically, the world electricity is produced by:

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  • coal (38 percent)
  • natural gas (23 percent)
  • hydropower( 15 percent)
  • nuclear power (11 percent)
  • wind (6 percent)
  • solar(1 percent)
  • other fuels (3 percent)

Now, let’s spend more detail on various types of energy, including fossil fuels and other types of energy for America and the entire world.

Natural Gas

While there is room for debate about various energy plans, it is clear that the cornerstone of America energy policy is currently the shale gas revolution.

Fortunately, through surging gas production from vast shale formations the U.S. has become the largest natural gas producer in the world. Gas, now cheap and abundant, is driving a U.S manufacturing renaissance, reducing energy bills, and allowing a transition away from coal.

Coal

First, it is important to note that 50 percent of the world’s coal is used in China and 20 percent in India. The point being that replacing some of these huge amounts of coal to much cleaner natural gas would greatly reduce the world’s coal emissions

For countries like China and India whose economies are based on coal, advanced coal technologies could become the energy of choice for many. And don’t count out coal in the United States or Europe, given forecasts that coal will continue to play a major role through about 2040.

However, an important issue is the fact that coal from China, India, U.S. and Europe are increasing to add to world carbon emissions. So, coal energy must continually be improved, while adding cleaner fuels such as natural gas and nuclear power.

Nuclear Power

As for nuclear power, America has almost 100 emissions-free power plants, and many have stayed in service for over 60 years.    

Another attribute of nuclear power is that such plants can stay online about 90 percent of each year.

In addition, on the horizon is a new generation of small modular reactors that may be built in less time and at a fraction of today’s cost.

Hydropower

While not discussed much these days, use of water power to produce electrical power is substantial and free of carbon emissions. Hydropower produces about 7.5 percent of U.S. electricity and 16 percent of the world.

Interestingly, hydropower is still one of our largest renewable energy sources.

Renewables

Renewables, such as wind and solar only provide energy about 30 percent of the time. For comparison, nuclear plants are “on line” some 90 percent of the time, with coal and gas in the 60-70 percent range.

As a result, back-up power from natural gas, nuclear or coal are needed to ensure a steady stream of electricity when wind or solar is used. And don’t forget that costly taxpayer subsidies are needed for most renewables.

We don’t need to wage a war on fossil fuels, instead let’s focus on the following energy systems: natural gas, coal, nuclear power, hydropower and renewables (wind and solar). The key is competition among the above. 

But keep in mind that our energy will be kept cleaner by moving large amounts of coal to natural gas in the near terms.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA assistant administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta.