How Renewable Energy and Natural Gas Can Work Together

By Christopher Flavin & Saya Kitasei

One of the more encouraging developments of the past year is growing evidence that renewable energy and natural gas could be the cornerstones of a low-carbon power sector—and sooner than many experts had thought possible.

Wind and solar resources are abundant and can be converted into electricity using technologies that emit no greenhouse gases. Natural gas, as Worldwatch’s Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative has reported on ReVolt over the past year, offers a cleaner alternative to coal that can deliver sharp, immediate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector—if new supplies can be produced responsibly.

A new Worldwatch report, Powering the Low-Carbon Economy: The Once and Future Roles of Renewable Energy and Natural Gas, examines the synergies between renewable energy and natural gas in the power sector. The report concludes that four key mechanisms can enable the combination of renewable energy and natural gas to displace coal and provide needed reductions in power-sector emissions.

First, air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury must be tightly regulated. Second, a cost must be attached to emitting carbon dioxide. Third, electricity system operators should allow wind and solar plants to balance their own output with on-site resources. And finally, the markets on which system operators purchase electricity must be highly responsive, allowing them to react to fluctuations in electricity supply and demand as rapidly as possible. Working together, renewable energy and natural gas can accelerate the decarbonization of the world’s electricity system and form the foundation of tomorrow’s low-carbon economy.

We are pleased to note that Deutsche Bank agrees with our conclusion. In a report released in November, the global investment bank proclaimed natural gas to be the “low-risk approach” to a low-carbon future for the United States. The report concluded that switching from coal to natural gas in the power sector is key to achieving the Obama administration’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2030.

According to Deutsche Bank, the natural gas share of U.S. power generation can be raised from 23 percent in 2009 to 35 percent in 2030, while coal’s share is cut from 47 percent to 21 percent. Like Worldwatch, Deutsche Bank also sees gas-fired power generation as providing the flexible power supply needed to facilitate a growing role for clean but variable power sources like wind and solar energy.

The new Worldwatch report was released at a symposium on “The Role of Natural Gas in a Low-Carbon Economy,” hosted by the International Gas Union and Worldwatch as a side event at the December Cancún climate conference. At the symposium, speakers from governments, NGOs, and the natural gas industry discussed the contribution that natural gas can make to international greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. Presentations and video footage will be available soon.

At the symposium, panelist Kandeh Yumkella, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), reminded participating speakers and delegates that access to clean energy remains a key public health, environmental, and development challenge. Natural gas can and must improve clean energy access around the world, whether by displacing coal, facilitating the growth of renewable energy, or replacing dirtier fuels in transportation and buildings.

In its second year, Wordlwatch’s Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative will focus on the potential for natural gas to enhance clean energy access in the developing world, while continuing its work on the environmental challenges and opportunities that natural gas presents.

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