Fracking shale has kicked off an oil and gas renaissance in recent years here in the U.S., but as quickly as it has remade our energy landscape, it has also became a focal point for environmentalists’ ire. For many greens, the spike in natural gas production is necessarily a step in the wrong direction because, as they see it, a fossil fuel’s a fossil fuel. But not all brown energy resources were created equal: Natural gas emits roughly half the greenhouse gases as coal, and releases much fewer local pollutants. And now, as the EIA reports, shale gas is displacing large quantities of dirtier-burning coal:
Earlier this year, natural gas-fired generation surpassed generation from coal for the first time. This switch occurred in April, generally the month with the lowest demand for electricity. In times of low electricity demand, many generators schedule routine maintenance, and utilization rates for generating plants are low. As demand increases during the summer, output from both coal- and natural gas-fired generators increases.
Total electricity demand, excluding demand met by distributed (largely renewable) sources, increased from 384 billion kilowatthours (kWh) in July 2014 to 398 billion kWh in July 2015. Coal-fired generation fell from 150 billion kWh to 139 billion kWh, while natural gas-fired generation rose from 114 billion kWh to 140 billion kWh. This decrease in coal and increase in natural gas occurred in every region of the country: the Mid-Atlantic region had the largest decline in coal-fired generation, followed by Texas, while the Southeast and Central regions had the largest increases in natural gas-fired generation.
This is what real green progress looks like. Innovative new drilling techniques have helped companies profitably tap a greener resource, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions even as they’ve cut Americans’ heating bills.
Moreover, natural gas-fired power plants are uniquely suited to complement renewable energy production. Solar and wind farms can only produce power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, so grids still must rely on another, more consistent source to help fill in those gaps. Gas-fired plants can be brought on and offline relatively quickly and cheaply, making them the ideal match for the renewables greens are so eager to see successfully deployed. Thanks to fracking, we’ve got an overabundance of that natural gas, and it’s cheap!
We’ve said for years now that shale gas is fracking green, and the EIA’s latest numbers help to prove our point. Lacking cost-effective, scalable storage options, we can’t run society on renewables alone. Any rational green should be able to see the eco-merits of the shale boom, but, sadly, that class of environmentalist seems to be in short supply.