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The Daily Wogan

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

The Daily Wogan is making its official public debut today. This new blog focuses on sustainability, energy and policy – primarily in the context of local (Austin) issues. The blog’s author, David Wogan, is a member of my research group at The University of Texas at Austin. Check it out here!

A Hippie and an Engineer – on Energy

In my “happy place” the entire world would have access to clean, renewable, affordable energy. We would have extremely cheap and efficient solar panels that could be economically placed on buildings in the cloudy Pacific Northwest and the poorest regions of Africa. Our energy would run in harmony with Mother Earth, provide access to education and higher standards of living for all, and would NEVER harm our oceans or our health through oil spills or the release of mercury and lead (two nasty neurotoxins) into our air.

The sky and the oceans would be blue and the grass green. Bluebonnets would cover every hill country roadside. The air would have no color at all.

Yes, I definitely have some of the hippie granola in me – and I’m unapologetic about that – but I’m also practical.

It is not in our best interest to sacrifice our access to affordable energy, though the definition of “affordable” is open for debate and the economic model for energy is currently not an accurate depiction of the costs. Our economy relies upon access to reliable energy. It has been directly responsible for medical advancements that save lives, the development of transportation options that make the world more accessible, and has increased quality of life for people around the world. It is simply not practical to require our economy to switch to one more reliable on unreliable energy sources.

As we work to figure out large-scale energy storage (which I believe should be one of our top priorities), I believe we should take a good, hard look at the resources we have available to us now and figure out how to use them in the most environmentally and economically sound ways that we can.

Which brings me to natural gas….

Natural gas is one of those things – one of those underrated superstars whose time in the limelight hasn’t come yet for reasons that many of us just don’t understand.  Historically, regulation and federal control of the natural gas market kept it from being a big player in the market. Today, natural gas could be a saving grace as we work toward achieving energy independence and a cleaner environment.

Natural gas can be used as a transportation fuel (compressed or liquefied natural gas) or as a feedstock for electricity generation. Today, Texas can thank natural gas for the relatively low-carbon intensity of its electric fleet (almost half of the electricity generated in Texas comes from natural gas) – though it still has a glaringly high per capita electricity use.

If you’d like to learn about the benefits of natural gas as a transportation fuel, I’d suggest checking out Castlen Kennedy’s blog about her road trip from Austin to Boston in a natural gas-powered Tahoe. I wrote about this trip in a previous post.

I’d like to discuss the electricity generation side of things…

From an environmental perspective on the electricity, natural gas is cleaner (fewer pounds of greenhouse gases emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, fewer dangerous neurotoxins flung into the air) than coal or oil. This means cleaner air to breathe – and let’s not forget global climate change. This feedstock also does not struggle with high levels of mercury and lead like coal does – meaning that natural gas for power results in cleaner air, land, and water compared to coal. Reading one story aboutbirth defects caused by high mercury levels in pregnant mothers is more than enough to convince you that lower levels of mercury in our air and water is a good thing.

Natural gas power plants also consume less water (~0.25 gallons per kilowatt-hour) for power plant cooling compared to both coal (~0.45 gallons per kWh) and nuclear (~0.6 gallons per kWh). An average Austin home would save 2,400 gallons of water every year if it received its electricity from natural gas power plants instead of coal power plants.

That’s not to say that natural gas does not have its environmental risks and downsides, but compared to coal these downsides are minimal.

Technically, natural gas power plants have shorter ramp-up times than coal power plants (starting your car versus pulling away from the train station for a ride on Amtrak). From a grid reliability standpoint, this is very important. If a plant goes down in east Texas or the wind dies in west Texas, natural gas power plants allow you to maintain a reliable supply of electricity to your customers. Arguably, the reason that wind power has been so successful in Texas is because we already had the natural gas capacity to back-up the variable wind power.

From a resource perspective, unconventional natural gas resources in the United States are now estimated to dwarf the oil reserves of the middle east. Abundant, domestic.

So, why hasn’t natural gas taken a principle role our energy systems?

Lets take a look at history…

When natural gas was first discovered, it was viewed as an annoying byproduct of oil production. Flaring was the most common means of more safely disposing of the gas. After natural gas was recognized as a valuable resource in early part of the 20th century (thank you, Texas Railroad Commission), this flaring largely stopped in the United States – though it continues abroad. But, natural gas continued to be underused because the infrastructure was not available ( the chicken-and-egg problem). Pipelines were needed to move this gas around the country.

After the pipelines were built, stringent price controls put in place by the U.S.  federal government made interstate sales of natural gas unprofitable. This led to extensive intrastate use of natural gas (in states like Texas and Oklahoma), but severely limited the growth of the natural gas market into other states. After the natural gas market was deregulated (circa 1989), natural gas was able to flow freely throughout the United States. But, the lobbying powers of the coal industry far exceeded (and still exceed) the natural gas industry, making the market less hospitable to this gaseous cousin to coal.

Today, less than 1/4 of our electricity comes from natural gas while 1/2 comes from coal. On the transportation fuel side, natural gas is barely a blip on the radar (chick and the egg – we don’t have the infrastructure, though this problem could be rapidly remedied). As we debate over how the country can achieve energy independence and a cleaner environment, I’d encourage our officials to look at natural gas.

What we want is power

“We don’t give a damn about energy. What we want is power.”

~Power Hungry, Ch. 1

The difference between energy and power…

  • Energy is the ability to do work.
  • Power is the rate at which work gets done.

The two can be related using time:

  • Power = Energy/time

We care about how much power we have, not how much energy. It is more power that allows us to move more quickly. Power is what accomplishes tasks – energy is just lip service.

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