Why We Can’t Count On Natural Gas

We can have an argument over whether natural gas can be a bridge to a renewable-energy future, but let’s be honest: It’s price, not greenhouse-gas concerns, that made it the fuel flavor of the day in the past couple of years. And now that supply and demand are realigning and the price of natural gas has been rising, we’re seeing how dangerous it might be to rely on gas for any climate-change benefits in the years to come.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the natural gas share of U.S. net electric power generation has fallen sharply since April 2012 and the coal share has increased. The two were each providing about 32 percent of the national’s power back then, but by March this year coal was up to 40 percent while natural gas had slid to around 27 percent.

image via U.S. Energy Information Administration

image via U.S. Energy Information Administration

What’s going on? Here’s the EIA analysis:

Since May 2012, a combination of higher prices for natural gas and increased demand for electricity during the summer months led electric systems across much of the country to increase their use of coal-fired units. In March 2013, coal-fired units generated a little over 130,000 megawatt-hours of electricity, while natural gas units produced nearly 85,000 megawatt-hours.

True, coal’s March 2013 40 percent share is still low by historical standards (between 2001 and 2008 it ranged from 48 to 51 percent on an annual basis). But these recent fluctuations are a reminder of how volatile fossil fuel sources can be.

Wind power might be more expensive than either coal or natural gas (though not everywhere), but at least you know what it’s price is going to be five or 10 or 15 years down the road.

Meanwhile, if natural gas prices continue to rise – and we don’t push hard for more renewable energy – the U.S. could quickly see a turnaround in the trend toward lower greenhouse-gas emissions. As Brad Plummer wrote in the Washington Post earlier this spring: “A continued drop in U.S. emissions is far from a given. Market forces appear to have done about as much as they can for now. And the United States is still quite far from the 17 percent cut in emissions by 2020 that President Obama pledged at Copenhagen.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.