The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent the natural gas industry a lovely bouquet on Wednesday, in the form of a press release headlined, “Carbon pollution from power plants declines 10 percent from 2010 due to growing use of natural gas.”
That left wind power, which like natural gas has grown quickly as a source of electrical generation in recent years, feeling just a bit snubbed. “I was a little surprised we weren’t mentioned,” American Wind Energy Association senior analyst Michael Goggin said in an interview. “We’ve been a consistent contributor to reducing emissions.”
Goggin argued that peering beyond the 2010-2012 time frame that the EPA analyzed helps to highlight the reliability of wind in the battle to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and shows the long-term risk of relying too heavily on natural gas.
“Preliminary EIA data for 2013 shows that some of the previous emissions reductions from switching from coal to gas, which contributed to the reduction cited by EPA, have actually subsided,” Goggin said. “Electric sector CO2 emissions were up about 2 percent for the first seven months of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012.”
That’s because the price of natural gas, after falling off a cliff, began to rise and power producers upped their coal use. Wind as a fuel, meanwhile, remained stable in price – free, as always – and in demand.
Again using EIA data, Goggin said wind generation year-to-date was up 17.7 million megawatt-hours in 2013 compared to 2012. Meanwhile, generation from coal was up 65.5 million MWh and gas was down 101.9 million MWh.
So how much of a GHG-cutting factor is wind? Goggin said that based on the more than 60 gigawatts of installed capacity the industry had in place at the end of 2012, he figures wind is reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by close to 100 million tons a year – around 4.5 percent of total electrical sector emissions in 2012.
Of course, wind critics have long tried to argue that wind, because of its intermittent generation, isn’t the GHG cutter that it claims to be. They’ve said that having fossil fuel plants cycling up and down to fill in for coming-and-going wind power cancels out much if not all of its GHG emissions benefits.
But Goggin pointed to a recent update of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study, by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which he said showed that cycling reduced the carbon cutting benefits of wind (and solar) by only 0.2 percent, even at high renewable-energy penetration rates.
“The data is clear that it’s a myth that cycling reduces efficiencies,” Goggin said, “and left no doubt that a megawatt-hour of wind energy produces a megawatt-hour of emissions benefits.”