Natural Gas is Not Clean Energy

July.03.2012

natural gas tracking is not clean energyThe production of coal energy is coming to an end with the last Ontario plant scheduled for closure in 2014. Now Canadians are looking to other sources of fuel for electricity production to make up the base and demand loads necessary to guarantee an uninterrupted supply to homes and industry. With nuclear energy proving too expensive and potentially dangerous, many countries are turning to natural gas as a viable alternative. Now some environmentalists are questioning claims that natural gas is a clean, green source of energy.

“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” says Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University. The objection to natural gas is twofold: there are substantial carbon emissions during energy production and the process of fracking (which is used when mining natural gas) contributes just as much to global warming as coal-fired plants do.

Energy Production

Natural gas originally won its green-energy status because its carbon emissions are about half those of coal-fired energy plants. Natural gas is a non-renewable resource that is extracted, cleaned and then burned in turbines and boilers to create steam, power turbines and produce electricity. Plants powered by gas do output reduced nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions when compared to coal-burning plants. However, methane released when gas is not completely burned, as well as during the production of natural gas negate the positive aspect gas plants enjoy.

Fracking

natural gas tracking is not clean energyFracking is the process of extracting natural gas that is trapped deep beneath shale beds. Long wells are drilled to the gas reserves (usually about 1km or deeper). A mixture of chemicals, water and sand is then pumped into the ground to force the gas up through fissures in the shale where it is collected. We are not entirely sure what impact fracking has on the environment as the cocktail of chemicals used in the process has been deemed a ‘trade secret’. We are, however, able to measure the emissions from plants that produce natural gas. A February 2012 study discovered that the production, transportation and burning of natural gas caused the release of considerable amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Fracking has also been linked to water pollution, earthquakes and the destruction of pristine environments. New studies show that the chemical cocktail used in fracking will leach into groundwater aquifers sooner than expected. France and Bulgaria have banned fracking in reaction to environmental concerns, but the practice is still enjoying unprecedented growth in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, China and other countries. In the US, shale gas accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s gas production. 70% of gas wells in Canada utilize fracking in the extraction processes.

Gas Leaks

The EPA sets the average leakage of gas production plants at 3.3% and that number increases to 9.7% where fracking is employed to extract gas. Natural gas consists of 85% methane and is a whopping 105 times worse for global warming than other greenhouse gas emissions. Methane on its own is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When methane reacts with aerosols in the atmosphere, this global warming effect is compounded.

The idea that natural gas may provide a panacea to our energy needs is being challenged. This has not had a discernible impact on the growth of gas plants according to Sheamus MacLean of Economic Performance Architects. Cheap gas prices have led to the adoption of this form of energy production over renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Reliance on natural gas energy may prove to be a leap from the frying pan into the fire due to the global warming and environmental impacts of gas extraction and energy production.

Comments

  1. Anonymous on July 3rd, 2012

    I think you are being a bit too quick to dismiss nuclear power.  15-meter tsunamis are rather infrequent in the middle of Canada, as are magnitude-9 earthquakes.

    You are correct to point out that essentially all energy sources have environmental impacts.  For solar, it is land consumption and poor capacity factor.  You need an enormous area plus some facility for energy storage, which is rarely figured into solar projections, in order to produce the same amount of base-load power as a nuclear plant.

    All in all, when you consider the total life cycle of energy production, nuclear doesn’t look bad by comparison.  Yes, the waste is dangerous, but the volume is tiny in comparison to fossil fuels.  And if you need (for example) 2000 big wind turbines to equal one nuclear plant, that’s actually more basic construction materials (concrete and steel).  I haven’t calculated lately how many square miles equals a gigawatt that would be an honest gigawatt, 24/7/365) for solar, but it’s quite a few.

    As to cost: what do you think drives it?  It’s almost entirely the capital cost of initial construction.  The fuel is a small fraction of the operating cost compared to fossil fuels.  Legal delaying tactics by anti-nuclear activists are the primary driver of construction cost risk.  You tell me what the cost would be for a 24/7/365 gigawatt of solar power.  No cheating; you have to account for energy storage and the value of land used, too.

    Here is a greatly expanded version of a talk I gave at my kids’ school a year ago, shortly after the Fukushima accident, entitled “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”.  Let me know what you think.

        http://www.scribd.com/doc/54904454/Nuclear-Earth-Day-2011

  2. admin on July 3rd, 2012

    Hi Rick,

    Here are a few facts that you may not have known:
    A 2010 study by Duke University found that solar power was much cheaper than nuclear energy. Since 2010, improvements in technology and competition has led to a 30% drop in solar prices; widening the cost gap between nuclear energy and renewable sources of power.
    The French court found nuclear too expensive too; in a report issued in March 2012, they found the costs of nuclear plant construction, the environmental impact of mining uranium and the running costs of nuclear plants too expensive for French consumers. This report estimated: “nuclear will cost 102 euros per megawatt-hour by 2020, onshore wind only 58 euros, and offshore wind 75 euros.”
    According to an article on the New York Times, a historical cross-over has occurred because of the declining costs of solar vs. the increasing costs of nuclear energy: solar, hardly the cheapest of renewable technologies, is now cheaper than nuclear, at around 16 cents per kilowatt hour. Furthermore, the NY Times reports that financial markets will not finance the construction of nuclear power plants unless the risk of default (which is historically as high as 50 percent for the nuclear industry) is externalized to someone else through federal loan guarantees or ratepayer funding. The bottom line seems to be that nuclear is simply not competitive, and the push from the US government to subsidize it seems to be forcing the wrong choice on the market.
    From Greenpeace: “Even before the triple meltdown at Fukushima, Wall Street was wary of investing in nuclear power. Moody’s called nuclear power a ‘bet-the-farm risk’ while Citibank called it a ‘corporation killer.’ MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, found that building new reactors did not make economic sense.”
    Following Fukushima, increased security measures have also hiked up prices. Sure the waste created by nuclear plants may not be much, and accidents seem unlikely, but they continue to occur despite all reassurances to the contrary. The cancer and diseases caused by nuclear disasters are so difficult to link back to their source as they take so long to manifest.
    As to the question of nuclear cost versus renewable energy, we turn to Germany as an example. Following Fukushima, Germany closed eight of its oldest nuclear reactors with the remaining nine scheduled for closure by 2020. On Friday May 27th, the German solar grid produced a record-breaking 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour which is equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. On a busy weekday, this accounted for about a third of total energy production which increased to half the next day when most factories were closed.
    There are several plus points to promoting solar installations. The cost of the installation is borne by the home or business owner rather than the tax payer. The maintenance of this installation also falls to the owners. Real estate is not being taken up as rooftop space is currently not utilized. Our objection to nuclear power is not based on safety so much as it is based on economics. And besides, no one ever died of a solar spill.

    Nikki

  3. Anonymous on July 3rd, 2012

    Hi Rick,Here are a few facts that you may not have known:
    A 2010 study by Duke University found that solar power was much cheaper than nuclear energy. Since 2010, improvements in technology and competition has led to a 30% drop in solar prices; widening the cost gap between nuclear energy and renewable sources of power.
    The French court found nuclear too expensive too; in a report issued in March 2012, they found the costs of nuclear plant construction, the environmental impact of mining uranium and the running costs of nuclear plants too expensive for French consumers. This report estimated: “nuclear will cost 102 euros per megawatt-hour by 2020, onshore wind only 58 euros, and offshore wind 75 euros.”
    According to an article on the New York Times, a historical cross-over has occurred because of the declining costs of solar vs. the increasing costs of nuclear energy: solar, hardly the cheapest of renewable technologies, is now cheaper than nuclear, at around 16 cents per kilowatt hour. Furthermore, the NY Times reports that financial markets will not finance the construction of nuclear power plants unless the risk of default (which is historically as high as 50 percent for the nuclear industry) is externalized to someone else through federal loan guarantees or ratepayer funding. The bottom line seems to be that nuclear is simply not competitive, and the push from the US government to subsidize it seems to be forcing the wrong choice on the market.
    From Greenpeace: “Even before the triple meltdown at Fukushima, Wall Street was wary of investing in nuclear power. Moody’s called nuclear power a ‘bet-the-farm risk’ while Citibank called it a ‘corporation killer.’ MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, found that building new reactors did not make economic sense.”
    Following Fukushima, increased security measures have also hiked up prices. Sure the waste created by nuclear plants may not be much, and accidents seem unlikely, but they continue to occur despite all reassurances to the contrary. The cancer and diseases caused by nuclear disasters are so difficult to link back to their source as they take so long to manifest.
    As to the question of nuclear cost versus renewable energy, we turn to Germany as an example.Following Fukushima, Germany closed eight of its oldest nuclear reactors with the remaining nine scheduled for closure by 2020. On Friday May 27th, the German solar grid produced a record-breaking 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour which is equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. On a busy weekday, this accounted for about a third of total energy production which increased to half the next day when most factories were closed.
    There are several plus points to promoting solar installations. The cost of the installation is borne by the home or business owner rather than the tax payer. The maintenance of this installation also falls to the owners. Real estate is not being taken up as rooftop space is currently not utilized. Our objection to nuclear power is not based on safety so much as it is based on economics. And besides, no one ever died of a solar spill.Nikki

  4. Anonymous on July 5th, 2012

    The problem is, some of your facts aren’t.

    The link to the NYT article you mention is here:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27iht-renuke.html?_r=1

    Note the subhead “Editor’s Note Appended”.  That note points out that the so-called study was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, but commissioned by an anti-nuclear “environmental advocacy group”.  It’s only connection with Duke University is that one author is a retired economics professor, and the other is a master’s candidate.  It is not a study “by Duke University”.

    Here’s the report itself:

      http://www.ncwarn.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/NCW-SolarReport_final1.pdf

    Let’s just skip to Appendix A, where the magic 16 cents is calculated.  It turns out the real number is 35 cents/KWh; you only get to 16 after applying a 54.5% (!) combined state and Federal subsidy.

    Let’s take the original pre-subsidy calculation and apply it to the 2010 capital cost estimate of the first nuclear plant on the list in Appendix B, which is Florida’s Turkey Point units.  The capital cost is $12.51 billion, which is near the top of the range.  Assuming a plant life of 40 years and the same 6% interest rate, the amortization factor is 0.06646.  There’s no derating for inversion; the nominal capacity is in generated watts, and the average nuclear capacity factor in 2010 for the US is 91%.  Modern nuclear is very reliable.

    So: ($12.51B * 0.06646) / (1,550,000KW * .91 * 8760) = 6.73 cents/KWh, or more than 5 times lower than solar PV.

    And the solar cost cited doesn’t include storage, which would be necessary to replace base-load power for the grid.  It also doesn’t account for degradation in power output with time:

       http://photovoltaics.sandia.gov/docs/PDF/IEEE%20Quintana.pdf

    and the need for cleaning the panels regularly to maintain full efficiency, which adds maintenance cost (and risk; people fall off roofs), from this description of Google’s solar system in the much more favorable California climate:

      https://docs.google.com/present/view?id=dfhw7d9z_0gtk9bsgc

    Note slide 13, which says you lose 12% if you don’t clean the panels and just rely on rain washing off the dust.  So your 35 cents just became 39 cents.

    Care to re-think the economic argument?

  5. Anonymous on July 6th, 2012

    Don’t get me wrong; we would love nuclear power to be an economically viable option. With the infrastructure already in place and the relatively low amount of pollution nuclear plants produce, we would be all for the nuclear if it wasn’t so expensive. We agree that the cost of current storage options for renewable energy is very high and favour a mixed medium approach to energy generation until technology gives us more options.
    http://www.solarlinepower.com/nuclear-power-or-solar-power-you-decide
     
    In Ontario, 80% of our power is provided by nuclear plants. The costs of refurbishments to those plants will top $33 billion this year and cause our hydro bills to double.
    http://www.solarlinepower.com/power-to-the-people
     
    Natural gas and nuclear facilities get large subsidies when market price falls below guaranteed price. This happens “almost all the time” according to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario who goes on to say; “The latter subsidies involve 70% of the global adjustment monies paid out, simply because they pay for the delivery of much more power. In fact, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) paid out $1.35 billion in 2010 to meet gas and nuclear power purchase agreements.”

    There are subsidies offered by the OPA for people who install solar panels and provide energy for the grid, but they pale next to the subsidies offered to nuclear plants. The cost of the installations, equipment and maintenance are borne by the home owner, not the government.
     
    In addition to the environmental benefits of renewable energy, the growth that these industries have created in Ontario has been invaluable. Private Sector Investment in Ontario will total over $21 Billion by 2018. There are over 60 manufacturers and over 1000 aboriginal community-based FIT projects are bringing much-needed revenues to Ontario communities. A recent study showed that the solar industry had been responsible for over $2 billion in investments in 2011 alone, creating an estimated 8,200 jobs. A number which will increase to 11,400 in 2012 with 25 jobs created for every megawatt of energy installed by 2018.

    As the French and German governments opt out of nuclear, and many many other countries shelve plans for new nuclear plants, we would like to think that it’s in solidarity with the victims of Fukushima, or over concern for the environment and the safety of the people who live near nuclear plants, but our experience tells us that financial motivations are far stronger.

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