As expensive, dirty coal power staggers toward its inevitable demise, natural gas has come to dominate the electricity market. Now natural gas is also losing ground to cleaner, cheaper renewable energy sources and technological advances.
Last year, both natural gas and coal generation fell for the first time ever, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wind and solar power are increasingly cheaper and easier to install than natural gas power plants, as The New York Times recently reported.
Natural gas proponents are relying on the same arguments used to justify propping up the coal industry. They say natural gas is more reliable and stable than wind and solar because there has historically been no way to store excess energy generated by renewable energy. Emerging advances in battery storage could be the nail in the coffin of natural gas plant economics.
With the advent of fracking, the U.S. has been flooded with cheap natural gas. But the real costs of relying on natural gas are enormous – measured in the devastating impacts to our health, environment and climate.
A recent study from two leading groups of health professionals concluded that fracking threatens to cause a nationwide public health crisis because it can’t be done safely. Air pollution, drinking water contamination, and increased rates of cancer, asthma and birth defects are all documented hazards of fracking.
Natural gas boosters have claimed that it’s preferable to coal because burning it in power plants doesn’t produce as much carbon dioxide pollution, a main source of climate change. But methane, the main component of natural gas, leaks from fracking drill rigs and other infrastructure, and over a 20-year period it is 84 times more potent in driving climate change. And methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry are likely 20 to 60 times higher than historically thought, the health professionals’ study estimates.
But as the decline in natural gas demand shows, the market is already moving on to cheap, renewable sources. In March, two power plant developers abandoned the California market because, the companies say, they can’t compete with renewables. And in November, the subsidiary of Texas-based Exelon, which sells energy on the open market, declared bankruptcy because its natural gas plants couldn’t compete with the lower cost of wind generation.
Policymakers are encouraging the shift from natural gas to wind and solar. In Arizona, regulators directed a utility to scrap its plans for a natural gas plant, and instead rely on energy storage and “plants that produce zero emissions,” according to The New York Times article. Regulators in California directed Pacific Gas & Electric to shutter three existing natural gas plants in favor of building out renewable and storage resources.
Advocates and the public are also pushing for change. For instance, in Michigan, a $1 billion natural gas plant proposed by Detroit Edison has come under fire. In March, Vote Solar and the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study demonstrating that the electricity demand the Michigan plant was supposed to meet could be provided by a combination of solar power, wind power and energy efficiency – creating about 10 times the number of construction jobs and four times the number of ongoing jobs.