Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

The insanity of a dash for gas

There’s been a fair amount of chatter over a Grantham Institute study (PDF) that says the UK can use fracked natural gas to reduce their CO2 emissions in the short run.

One example: UK should use shale gas to cut emissions, report says:

There are also concerns that a continuing reliance on gas will make it harder and more expensive to meet climate change goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The report’s authors said: “Analysis reveals that substantial investment in gas on the assumption of low prices and large unconventional reserves is a risky option.

“A lower risk option would be a ‘dash for smart gas’, where natural gas is used judiciously in those areas where it offers the greatest value in decarbonising the power sector.”

And they said: “In the short run, the UK’s emissions can be reduced by replacing coal-fired power stations with those fuelled by natural gas, which emit less than half the carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of coal-fired plants.

“But in the medium- to long-term, a heavy reliance on gas-fired power stations with unabated emissions would hinder the decarbonisation of the UK’s power sector.”

This sounds like yet another iteration of the “natural gas as a bridge fuel” nonsense, which I and others have been fighting for years, despite the last sentence I quoted above.

Perhaps a slightly broader view of the report will be helpful. From page four of the report, where it lists “key lessons and recommendations”, we find:

Third, extensive deployment of gas-fired power stations would not be consistent with the UK’s carbon targets, unless it is accompanied by the widespread introduction of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. In the short run, the UK’s emissions can be reduced by replacing coal-fired power stations with those fuelled by natural gas, which emit less than half the carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired plants. But in the medium to long term, a heavy reliance on gas-fired power stations with unabated emissions would hinder the decarbonisation of the UK’s power sector.

So… natural gas is a good bridge fuel, assuming the middle of the span can be held up via a yet-to-be-invented magical support of some kind, called CCS, that hovers in mid-air.

In other words, this report concludes that a fuller embrace of natural gas as a fuel only makes sense within the context of the mother of all energy/climate assumptions[1], namely that we develop and deploy economically viable CCS along with it.

Just a page later, the rport says:

Fifth, investment in complementary technologies, such as CCS, will be essential to ensure that future UK electricity generation is consistent with the emissions target legislated in the Climate Change Act (Her Majesty’s Government, 2008), and is able to meet increasing demand in a cost-efficient way. In particular, it is important to find out as soon as possible whether gas-fired power stations fitted with CCS can become economically viable within the next decade or so. Furthermore, as electricity generation is expected to include increasing contributions from renewables and possibly significant levels of nuclear power, it will be crucial to consider the full range of flexibility options that can help to integrate both more intermittent and less flexible sources into the electricity system. These options include gas-fired power stations, but also measures such as energy storage, interconnection and demand management which, if developed in a timely fashion, can reduce the need for additional generation capacity.

In sum, natural gas will continue to be important during the transition to a low-carbon electricity system. But if the UK is to meet carbon targets in a least-cost way, there is only a limited window for baseload generation from gas-fired power plants with unabated emissions, during which time it should replace coal. Gas can only play a more significant role beyond the 2020s if CCS technology is deployed on a commercial scale.

We need to invent CCS magic, or at least figure out if we can’t do that very soon, as measured in infrastructure timescales. And note the emphasis on natural gas fired generation as a backup to renewables, which is a far more nuanced view than saying the UK (or any country, for that matter) should leap into the open arms of yet another fossil fuel.

I also would point out that the report doesn’t even mention, as best I can tell from a quick skim/search, using natural gas as a transportation fuel. This is consistent with the view that CCS is needed for natural gas to make sense in the electricity generation sector, as there can be no CCS for mobile sources of emissions.

My point in all of this is not to beat up The Guardian (the source of the article quoted above) or any other news source, but to provide a gentle reminder, Dear Reader, of the dangers of reading summaries of reports on complicated issues, which often focus on the One Big Thing, instead of reading the reports themselves.


[1] OK, you can come up with bigger assumptions than that, like mayonnaise-jar cold fusion that delivers virtually zero-footprint, zero-cost electricity. But you get the point.

2 comments to The insanity of a dash for gas

  • Dan

    It’s an endless iteration of St Augustine’s prayer: Lord, make me chaste. But not yet.

  • Lou

    I see it as slightly different, more along the lines of: Make virtually everyone else chaste, but I want to continue to screw my brains out.

    Of course, if enough people take either St. Augustine’s or my view of things, it results in the same emergent property: We don’t do nearly enough now to save ourselves from a hell of a lot of pain later on.