Electric generation is the most fundamental concern for most environmentalists. Generally they encourage renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. While these sources are good for the environment, they suffer from limited availability and storage problems, which means that they can’t provide for all of the world’s energy needs or be the sole source of energy for the United States’ $17 trillion economy. There is a fuel that can fill the gaps to provide affordability and reliability and that is natural gas, which makes for a very effective fuel to assist these growing renewable resources.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 10 percent of America’s energy came from renewable sources during 2015. Building new and expanding additional electric generation infrastructure takes a very long time, so it will be years before the United States can derive a majority of its energy from renewable sources. And while some developed nations get more of their energy from those sources, most of them are in a similar position as the U.S. That means that the world, and developing nations will need to choose another fuel source to make it through the coming years.
Natural gas is cheap, abundant, and easy to produce, which makes it the natural choice to be a leading fuel source. The low price means that people are willing to choose it over other fossil fuels without regulatory pressure. Extracting natural gas is also safer and with new revolutionary technology, it can be extracted from the ground with less environmental damage. No method of energy development comes without a cost. Especially as ‘clean’ technologies rely on various forms of carbon derivatives, but natural gas production comes with fewer environmental costs than other fossil fuels.
Renewable energy sources are advantageous because they have few, if any, emissions. Nuclear power has minimal emissions, but concerns about waste disposal, cost, and accidents rule it out as an option is many parts of the world. For conventional resources, some pollution happens when fuels are extracted, but most of the concerns for the environment comes from the emissions when they are burned – although rigorous standards have been created and implemented by various government agencies working in conjunction with producers.
Other energy sources have more emissions, but they aren’t created equal. Natural gas offers significantly fewer emissions of CO2 and most other air pollutants than other fossil fuels per unit of energy. It isn’t as clean as the sources of renewable energy, but it’s the cleanest option available in the many situations where renewable resources, small and utility scale, are not available.
The greatest practical problem with renewable energy is that it tends to be unreliable. Solar cells stop working at night, and their efficiency drops when the sky is too cloudy. Wind turbines only function when the wind is blowing at the right speed and, moreover, many installations are located far from where there is generation demand. The reliable sources of renewable energy, such as geothermal generation, tend to be limited to specific areas. Mixing several renewable sources together can cover most of those gaps, but it can still fall short. That means that most societies that rely on renewable energy need massive storage facilities, which are very expensive, or a backup fuel source to accommodate intermittency and fuel source availability.
The backup source should be cheap, since it won’t always be in use, and it needs to be easy to store until it is needed. That narrows the options down to fossil fuels, since nuclear power plants are too expensive to be installed purely as backups in most situations. Choosing the right fossil fuel for the job comes down to cleanliness and price, which favors natural gas.