A new study says that, despite some environmentalists’ claims, trading natural gas for coal power will fail to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also delay investment in renewable power.
The study was recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters and was conducted by researchers from UCI, Stanford University and the nonprofit organization Near Zero.
The increased use of natural gas, they note, “has been promoted as a means of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector, because of superior generator efficiency and lower CO2 emissions per unit of electricity” as compared to coal. They write that the abundance of natural gas “may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies.”
Proponents of switching to natural gas include Ken Caldeira, a researcher at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution of Science. He co-authored a 2012 study that concluded natural gas could reduce global warming by 20 percent over the next 100 years. However, by integrating economic feedbacks into the analysis, Caldeira admits that the ERL report “make[s] expansion of the natural gas industry look less helpful than ever.”
The new study calculates that natural gas could reduce cumulative emissions from the electricity sector by 9 percent between now and 2055. However, in some scenarios, it could increase emissions by up to 5 percent.
Currently, coal generates 39 percent of America’s electricity. Natural gas has been lauded by many, including President Obama, as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner energy.
But pushing for that switch “delays up to decades the time period over which renewable energies become economically competitive,” according to the report. And if natural gas makes energy cheaper, it will de-incentive energy efficiency, canceling out the benefits of lower CO2 emissions.
“We’re very glad to see the EPA moving forward with the regulations, because it’s been a long time coming,” said co-author Christine Shearer, in reference to the agency’s proposed regulation to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030. “But we do think that our study does have some caution for what they’re doing.”
In its proposal, the EPA suggests switching to natural gas in lieu of coal to meet the 2030 deadline.
But, says Shearer, relying on natural gas alone will not make for a strong U.S. environmental policy. “If we want to be serious about reducing emissions and helping avert the worst effects of climate change,” she said, “we really need to look at what’s effective.”