Could the short-term benefits of promoting natural gas jeopardise the growth of renewables in the long term?
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The rapid rise of fracking, while lowering energy costs in the United States, threatens to starve renewable energy of funding and limit efforts to curb climate change, experts say.
Rapid growth of renewable energy and the rise of hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas - known as fracking - are the two biggest developments in energy over the last decade, the experts said.
But in the race to loosen the grip of coal and oil in the United States, cut energy imports and curb climate change, the focus on fracking is proving a threat, they said.
The shale gas boom started in the U.S. around the time of the banking crisis, partly because fracking – the process of injecting a highly pressurised combination of sand, water and chemicals into shale rock to release the natural gas trapped inside – offered a cheaper answer to energy development than foreign oil.
Over the past six years, shale gas has become a popular alternative to more traditional energy sources, with supporters arguing it makes financial and environmental sense.
Analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that the production of gas extracted by fracking has risen ten-fold in the U.S. since 2007, putting the country on track to become a net energy exporter by 2019.
In a debate last year, University of California at Davis energy researcher Amy Myers Jaffe said fracking could cut the U.S. fiscal deficit by up to 2.4 percent of GDP by reducing oil imports. And in a 2012 report, London-based energy consultancy IHS CERA said fracking has helped the U.S. economic recovery by lowering energy costs.
While fracking comes with its own set of environmental concerns, including ground-water contamination, emissions of methane and other climate-changing gases, and a tendency for the technique to induce earthquakes, experts agree that burning natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than does burning coal.
As a result, shale gas has been hailed as a "bridge fuel" between carbon-intensive fuels and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
But could the short-term benefits of promoting natural gas jeopardise the growth of renewables in the long term?
ISSUES OF SCALE
As the use of shale gas has become more widespread, renewable energy has gotten cheaper. The International Energy Agency’s 2013 World Energy Outlook said that the price of renewables has dropped over 50 percent since 2008.
Despite the drop in the cost of renewables, however, funding is still flowing to natural gas. As Daniel Yergin, vice president of IHS CERA, points out, renewable energy is mostly limited to electricity production. Gas is more versatile, with uses in heating as well as power generation.
"In the energy sector, it all comes down to scale," said Yergin, referring to the fact that natural gas, more easily than renewables, can be scaled up big and fast.
Supporters of shale gas also claim that renewables are unreliable. The sun may not always shine and the wind might not always blow, but natural-gas plants can run uninterrupted while still emitting fewer greenhouse gases than equivalent coal-fired power plants, said Anthony Alexander, CEO of FirstEnergy Corp., a Ohio-based energy company.
"Microgrids, rooftop solar and demand reduction are examples of what 'sounds good'," Alexander told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in April 2014. "(But) they are not substitutes for what has worked to sustain a reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electric system."
Renewable energy advocates say the issues facing the sector can be resolved. "None of these are unsolvable problems, even by current technology standards," said Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University.
As for the relatively low cost of gas compared to renewables, some experts argue it can't last. According to Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, based on market forces alone, "it is inevitable that renewable sources will take over from fossil fuels," given that transforming shale gas into a fuel will always cost something while wind, water and sunshine will always be free.
Others say the idea of comparing the costs of shale gas and renewables like-for-like is flawed. With their dependence on the weather, renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels may not be as convenient as shale gas, but the risks of relying on gas – both financial and environmental – could have a higher price, said Travis Bradford, director of the energy and environment concentration at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
"The risk-adjusted cost of shale gas would make much less financial sense than the cost of renewables adjusted for (working intermittently)," he said.
When it comes to funding energy development, however, economics is not the only factor, with policy and public perception still favouring shale gas, experts say.
Jacobson says an 11 percent drop in renewable energy investments globally from 2012 to 2013 was mirrored in the U.S. largely due to the expiration of government subsidies that had been introduced to encourage the adoption of clean sources of energy.
Political infighting over energy priorities and a lack of clear, long-term public policy on renewable energy are stalling the transition to low-carbon fuels, say experts. "Uncertain policy is public enemy number one" for investors, said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the IEA, at the 2013 Renewable Energy Finance Forum in New York.
Jigar Shah, an energy entrepreneur and founder of SunEdison, a solar energy firm, says renewable energy can still attract the financing needed to allow the sector to grow.
"We've got much of the technology needed to solve the climate crisis," he wrote in his book "Creating Climate Wealth." "What we need now is financing innovation."
Shifali Gupta is a degree candidate in the M.A. program in climate and society at Columbia University in New York.
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