New Study Casts Doubt On The Climate Benefits Of Natural Gas Power Plants
Burning natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide in coal, which is why policymakers across the political spectrum have long billed it as a “bridging fuel” for a safer climate.
However, new research suggests that the emissions benefits of gas-fired power plants are not what they seem.
U.S. carbon dioxide production, the main gas causing climate change, fell 23% between 2000 and 2018 as emissions from the electricity sector fell 34%, mainly due to the shutdown of coal-fired power plants.
However, if the new fleet of gas facilities built over the past decade lasts as long and is used as often as the units of coal they replaced, the projected emissions for the U.S. energy sector will be around for the life of the stations only 12% decrease, a study found published last month in the journal AGU Advances. And when the high-end estimates of how much methane, a powerful heat storage gas and the main component of natural gas, leaks each year during the production and burn cycle, even those reductions are effectively eliminated.
In other words, trading coal-fired power plants for gas plants reduced annual emissions but left cumulative future pollution - known as "bound emissions" - virtually unchanged.
AES Corp.'s gas-fired Alamitos Energy Center. in Long Beach is one of the largest power plants in California. (Photo by David McNew via Getty Images)
Increased reliance on gas facilities "has lowered current emissions but lengthened the runway, and the tradeoffs negate one another," said Steven Davis, an earth system scientist at the University of California-Irvine, who co-authored the study.
"What this really shows is that maybe we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back too hard to shut down old coal-fired power plants," he added. "They were old, ready for retirement, and we've replaced them with a whole range of very modern gas systems that will likely be with us for decades to come."
Only plants are coming. According to an analysis by USA Today published in September 2019, around 2,000 stations are already under construction or have been announced.
President Donald Trump has slashed federal regulations on power plant emissions and increased government aid to fossil fuel producers and users. Last week, Democratic challenger Joe Biden described natural gas as a necessary “bridge” to a cleaner economy.
The new study was one of the first major attempts to measure cumulative lifetime emissions from the U.S. energy sector since the fracking boom shifted most of its electricity generation to natural gas.
The authors compared the data from the Energy Information Administration on the use of power plants and the volume of gas units with the coal-fired power plant database of the Global Energy Monitor. They assumed that new gas plants would last about as long as coal-fired power plants, between 40 and 50 years.
They then modeled the annual methane leak using three different scenarios. A low-end estimate put the industry's annual unburned methane leakage at 1%. The middle estimate used the Environmental Protection Agency's 1.4% per year. The high-end estimate, based on increasing research suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency is under counting methane leaks, put the annual number at 3%.
It cut current emissions but made the runway longer, and the tradeoffs are mutually exclusive.
Steven Davis, Earth System Scientist at the University of California, Irvine
The US would have to shut down many of its gas facilities or drastically reduce the frequency of their use in order to actually meet the emission reductions promised under the Paris climate agreement, according to the study.
"This really challenges the bridge theory," said Christine Shearer, a researcher at the Global Energy Monitor research institute and co-author of the study. "If the only way to really cut emissions with all of these gas systems that we've added is to significantly reduce their consumption, then they haven't reduced the emissions themselves."
The researchers did not model the potential cumulative emissions from gas installations that have been retrofitted with carbon emission capture and storage technologies. While such tools are slowly gaining traction, they are still expensive and are unlikely to become as cheap as wind and solar systems.
But gas facilities equipped to capture carbon could play a role in the future, said Hank Webster, a policy expert at the Acadia Center, a nonprofit think tank researching clean energy. Solar and wind should produce most of the country's electricity, but gas plants could stay on as a backup and come on stream when renewables cannot meet demand.
"The strategy should be to keep only the most efficient gas facilities around and only play the role of interruption to ensure reliability as we continue to march towards renewables," said Webster, who was not involved in the study . "But we probably won't need all of the gas systems that exist right now."
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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