The Divide: Should “clean” natural gas be the “bridge” to 100% renewable energy?

The Divide: Should “clean” natural gas be the “bridge” to 100% renewable energy?

Last week, a draft report on climate change, which was conducted by scientists from 13 federal agencies, was obtained by The New York Times. The report noted that thousands of studies, conducted by many more thousands of scientists, have documented climate change exists. Most sane people acknowledge this cruel reality, and realize that we must take immediate action to slow it down. Others, in the not-so-sane group like Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, deny the human element on climate change and want the United States to pull out of the Paris Accord. Leaving aside the “deniers” for now, the divide between the realists is: Should “clean” natural gas be the “bridge” from where we are today to where we must be tomorrow?

In following this issue, the answer as to whether or not to use natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to get us to the day when we can fully utilize renewable energy sources, has pitted one-time environment-conscious allies against each other. This was very apparent at last Thursday’s rally at the state Capitol where people, mostly from the lower Hudson Valley region, came to protest a fracked gas power plant that is being constructed in Orange County, New York. The specific request of the protesters was to ask the Department of Environmental Conservation to deny the 401 water permit for the plant, thus shutting it down before it is even up and running.

The Competitive Power Ventures (CPV) Valley Energy Center is a $900 million project scheduled to begin operation in February 2018. CPV is a 680 megawatt natural gas-fueled combined-cycle electric generation facility located in Wawayanda. It is very visible from I-84 as you travel from New York to Pennsylvania. The company claims that this power plant will be the “cleanest” plant in New York State. It will use mostly “clean” natural gas with ultra low sulfur diesel as a back-up fuel.  And, there’s the rub: Is natural gas “clean?” Is it better for the environment and a way to slow climate change, or is it just as dangerous to the future of our planet as other fossil fuels?

As I walked around West Capitol Park and talked with attendees from Orange County, Syracuse, Putnam, and the Capital District, the debate as to using natural gas as a “bridge” energy source was the topic of discussion. Some people felt that, while natural gas is not “clean,” it will buy us time until we can develop enough technologies to replace all fossil fuels. However, this was not the sentiment of a majority of the demonstrators.  Most of the protesters, and, I might add, all of the speakers I heard, believe that there is no such thing as “clean” natural gas. And, therefore, we should not be constructing nor approving power plants that are relying on “clean” natural gas. Instead, these people (and I count myself among them) want to see the billions of dollars being spent on “clean” natural gas facilities and pipelines, diverted to investing in facilities that will operate with wind, solar, geothermal, or any combination of the three alternate fuel sources, to meet our energy needs.  

The CPV plant will be using natural gas, most of it coming from the fracking wells in Pennsylvania. Natural gas is not “clean,” despite what The Business Council of New York State, Inc. would have us believe (Op-ed, Times Union, August 11, 2017). Yes, natural gas is cleaner than coal. Burning natural gas emits about half the amount of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity than coal. But natural gas leaks methane gas. And methane gas accelerates climate change. Furthermore, with the number of power plants using natural gas on the rise, and the increase in the use of natural gas by all of us following the economic rebound from the recession, experts say that it will be impossible for us to meet our goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 if we continue on this path of just substituting “clean” natural gas for coal or other fossil fuels. In fact, some scientists believe that, if the current rate of natural gas use continues, it will take us 70 years to replace natural gas with green or renewable energy.

At the anti-CPV rally, the consensus seemed to be that we must get out of the natural gas cycle immediately. That we must not waste any more time and money investing in fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines and fossil-fueled-powered electric generating plants. Many people felt that if Gov. Cuomo was serious when he banned fracking in New York that he must follow that up with prohibiting any power plant in the State from using natural gas derived from fracking. Bill McKibben, when he spoke at the rally, said just that: “It makes no sense to ban fracking in New York, but allow a power plant that uses fracked gas to operate.” He went on to say, “Governor Cuomo needs to know that we are not going away…We need real leadership, not half leadership.”

Locally, Governor Cuomo has proposed constructing a microgrid project in the former Sheridan Avenue steam plant facility to power the Empire State Plaza. The now-closed and vacant plant will be turned into a natural gas-fired 16 megawatt (actually, two eight-megawatt turbine generators) mini power plant. Of course, this facility is located in a mostly low-income community of color. Cuomo is touting this facility as “clean” and a way for the State to combat climate change. Yet it is a natural-gas-powered facility. A gas that is made up of methane. Gov. Cuomo, let’s take a huge step here, and be a real leader and make the plant a renewable, and truly clean, energy plant. Let’s construct a solar and geothermal power plant, instead of a natural gas power plant. For, as we chanted at the CPV rally: “Governor Cuomo hear our plea…Keep our future safe and green…We need clean air that we can breathe…Wind and solar won’t pollute ya…That’s why we want them for our future.”

“Clean” natural gas is not the answer. It is not clean and it is not a “bridge” to renewable energy. All it will do is allow the big corporations to further delay investing in green jobs, and fully making the U.S. a near zero carbon emitting energy country.  

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