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Natural gas and America's clean energy transition

Natural gas and America's clean energy transition
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President Biden has set the ambitious, important climate goal of achieving net zero emissions from the nation’s electric power sector by 2035.  Already, natural gas has played a key role in lowering U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in the past 15 years, in part by displacing higher emitting coal. But gas, which still provides more than a third of America’s electricity, must play an even greater part in America’s decarbonization plans going forward. 

Right now, gas uniquely supports the expansion of renewable energy by providing an instantly dispatchable source of electricity. Unlike coal and nuclear plants, natural gas power plants turn on and off within minutes, allowing the grid to quickly match supply and demand even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. As a U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory report has noted, this unique flexibility of natural gas generation thereby facilitates the steady expansion of renewables.

Yet as we move toward decarbonization, maintaining an affordable and reliable grid is becoming more exacting, due to increased frequency of extreme weather events and the rapid growth of intermittent and variable wind and solar power. Retaining sufficient natural gas generation to backstop wind and solar power will reduce costs and increase reliability compared to a grid that relies entirely on renewables, or often more expensive electricity storage. Given these realities, demands to ban shale gas development and fracking are not consistent with an economically balanced approach to decarbonizing the electric grid, as President Biden and other administration officials have repeatedly noted. 

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In the years ahead, natural gas generation must move toward zero carbon emissions to be part of America’s clean energy transition. A recent study by the Progressive Policy Institute, “Wind, Solar, and Gas: Managing the Risks of America’s Clean Energy Transition” describes how this can occur. The report strongly urges U.S. policymakers and the natural gas industry to work together to:

  • Incentivize far greater investment and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to move gas-fired plants toward zero carbon emissions; and 
  • dramatically reduce powerful methane emissions from the natural gas production and use, including methane originating from abandoned or decommissioned wells.

These changes will be not easy. Despite recent progress, the development of CCS technology is generally nascent and has not been commercially retrofitted to a major natural gas power plant in the United States. At the same time, methane emissions from the natural gas sector have been underregulated at the federal level due to the Trump administration’s rollback of methane regulations under the Obama administration. The gas industry must work together with the Biden administration to create effective methane mitigation regulations and other strategies that reduce these powerful emissions and increase gas efficiency of production, transport and use.

President Biden can strike a new bargain between the federal government and natural gas companies for decarbonizing the natural gas sector. Washington should acknowledge and support the role gas plays in enabling rapid deployment of renewable energy, and work with the industry to deploy a range of clean technologies and practices. The gas and utility industries in turn must work with government and consumers to commit to consistent progress toward zero carbon emissions, achieved through the more rapid development of CCS technology, deep reductions of methane emissions throughout the natural gas lifecycle and other efforts.

The American people overwhelming support such an approach, including in the areas of the nation with shale production. Polling last fall in Pennsylvania and Ohio revealed remarkably strong support for Biden’s climate policies, which include both an expansion of renewable energy and a continuing role for shale gas as part of a clean energy transition. And as a recent letter from Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing Buttigieg on exaggerated infrastructure jobs estimate: 'I should have been more precise' MORE (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, notes, natural gas involves more than 1.5 million U.S. jobs. 

Natural gas can contribute to a decarbonized electricity grid in other ways as well.  These include fuel substitution with renewable natural gas, blending of hydrogen into gas pipelines, creation of “blue” hydrogen and the potential of new generation technologies such as Allam Cycle plants, which should continue to gain research and deployment support.

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But too often the political debate around energy and climate policy presents Americans with a false choice between natural gas and renewable energy. Today, in fact, the two are intertwined. America needs natural gas now to enable and backstop the rapid deployment of renewable energy on the grid, not to mention supplying power to U.S. industries and homes. Rather than politically counterproductive efforts to ban gas production, progressives must keep their eyes on the real prize: achieving net zero carbon emissions.   

Crucially, efforts to decarbonize natural gas and the electricity sector also can help to depolarize the debate regarding climate change. By rejecting unrealistic demands to abolish natural gas now, and speeding the technological advances necessary to decarbonize, President Biden can build deeper political support for a clean energy transition that meets both America’s climate and economic goals.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute. Paul Bledsoe is a strategic adviser at the PPI.