If you’ve followed the news around energy markets over the past several years, you may have seen a notable trend: natural gas is on the rise around the world, especially in the United States. Less than two decades ago, the majority of electricity in the US was coming from coal. Now, that rate has fallen around 30 percent, while the share of electricity coming from natural gas production has doubled over the past 17 years.
As natural gas expanded, fossil fuel companies were also telling the world a story about how it would help us transition to a cleaner, more sustainable economy. The story, of course, was a lie, but it made use of a few important facts to help sell the deception.
These companies told the world that they believed in achieving sustainability, and that they had found the best path forward: investment in lower-carbon-emitting fuels that would help facilitate the transition. By focusing only on how natural gas emits less carbon than coal (but ignoring its other effects), they pitched natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that would help curb emissions while we transition toward renewables.
So, is it? Is natural gas a bridge fuel?
The short answer is no.
The Problem with Natural Gas
The first thing you need to know is that natural gas still emits carbon dioxide, and even though it emits roughly half that of coal, 50 percent is still way too much given our current climate trajectory. On top of that, using natural gas actually adds another greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, one even more powerful in the near-term: methane.
How much more powerful? Well, when methane enters the atmosphere, it’s about 120 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat.
But emissions don’t cover the full scope of damages that natural gas can have on our environment. Extracting it is dangerous. It can pose threats to watersheds, poison drinking water, clog up streams, and pollute the air for miles around. Natural gas also isn’t used exclusively for electrical power – it’s used in the creation of plastics, meaning it poses environmental and public health threats throughout its lifecycle and for many years after.
If natural gas is a bridge fuel, it’s a bridge to nowhere, and we can’t afford to get lost along our way to achieving net-zero emissions.
But Wait… Do We Even Need a Bridge?
No, we don’t.
In that same period that coal was losing its energy dominance in the US and around the world, investors across the planet were funneling money into research and development for actual renewable resources.
And we’re here to tell you that they work. Not only are they cheaper and greener and more efficient than coal, but they represent a legitimate bridge to sustainability. We don’t need to waste our time making a slow transition. The future is here right now. And it features multiple lanes to achieving our climate goals.
Alternative 1: Solar
The clean energy and green tech conversations of the past decade have been dominated by excitement about solar power. If you’ve followed developments in the solar industry at all, this should come as no surprise. Solar power is everywhere these days. Not only have we seen more households with solar panels on their roofs, but many big names and big companies are investing in solar energy themselves.
Solar energy is powerful, cheap, and easier to harness than you might think.
It’s a common myth that solar energy will only work when it’s sunny outside. But the truth is, solar panels can harness and generate energy all year long and in all kinds of weather. Because they’re powered by light and not heat, these bad boys will be able to keep producing energy so long as there is a sun above our heads (and we expect that to be the case for a rather long time). Solar panels typically have warranties of 25–30 years and are actually well-known for outlasting them.
If that’s not enough, the impacts of a transition toward solar are estimated to be huge. Solar panels release zero emissions and produce no toxic gases during use. They offer a more direct pipeline between energy sourcing and the buildings that they power, and while their efficiency keeps improving, their price keeps falling – by over 70 percent in the last decade alone. Moreover, estimates suggest it would require just 0.6 percent of the United States’ land to power the entire country on solar alone.
And in case you’re wondering how much energy we could get from solar, more energy from the sun strikes the Earth every hour than humanity uses in an entire year.
Alternative 2: Wind
Another big player in the green energy space is wind power, and just like solar, wind represents another zero emissions alternative to fossil fuel energy sources. Moreover, investments in the wind energy sector are creating tons of well-paid jobs, with enough capacity to power millions of homes.
Although wind hasn’t quite had its moment in the sun like solar, this sector is growing fast. Ironically, the biggest developments in wind energy have taken place in the fossil-fuel industry-dominated state of Texas, where more wind turbines have been built and installed than anywhere else in the country.
Industry experts suggest that wind is on track to provide 20 percent of the energy for the entire United States by 2030 alone.
As the benefits of wind energy continue to attract investment, it’s clear that this sector presents another viable alternative for achieving our climate goals.
Alternative 3: Geothermal
Another serious contender for the prize of “best” alternative to fossil fuels might just come from an unexpected place: beneath the ground.
Yes, yes, we know that’s been our problem for past few centuries, but this time it’s genuinely different. You see, although you may not know a lot about geothermal energy, it packs a lot of heat in the energy debate.
Geothermal energy systems harvest heat energy that’s contained within the Earth’s crust. These systems can be used to generate electricity and to heat homes. In both cases, using geothermal heat as an energy source, shrinks our carbon footprint and is completely renewable.
Very importantly, residential geothermal systems are built to last an incredibly long time and require minimal maintenance. Moreover, although the sticker price for a residential geothermal energy system can look expensive, the savings homes can expect are significant, amounting to an expected average of 30-70 percent on heating, and 20-50 percent on cooling.
If that’s not enough, geothermal energy is consistent, available for use 365 days a year without any variability based on the weather or climate.
Alternative 4: A Combination of the Above
Here’s an important truth:
We’re probably not going to find a “Holy Grail” technology that will be our single source of energy for centuries to come. The task we have is to organize and fight for a greener economy that supports our energy needs while protecting people and the planet.
What does that look like?
Well, we expect it to involve a combination of the energy sources listed above – solar, wind, and geothermal energy. It will also involve improvements in small-scale and low-impact hydropower dams, or the use of other green energy sources not discussed in this blog. We’re only starting to explore the horizons of green energy and technology, but what we’ve uncovered and developed so far is incredible.
Coal’s market share keeps falling. And while oil and natural gas companies are working hard to fill the open spaces left by this dying industry, their technology simply cannot beat renewables in terms of long-term benefits.
The problem is that these industries have never cared about helping anyone but themselves.
That’s why we need fight for the changes that we believe in.
You Can Help Us Cross the Bridge to Sustainability
We know we don’t need a broken, dirty “bridge” to cross over toward a cleaner environment and a more viable economy. What we do need is engaged citizens like you who are willing and ready to fight for change.
If you think these energy sources could be used in your community, you can take all kinds of steps to make it happen. You might look into how you could switch over to clean energy in your own household. Or if you’re thinking big but need help finding a network of other change makers, you can join a local Climate Reality chapter.
We can do this! But we need your help in making it happen.
© 2013 Loren Kerns/Flickr CC BY 2.0
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