Polis Renewable Energy Goals and the Lingering Need for Natural Gas

Gas fireplace. What will replace them?

While politics is too much of an “ends justify the means” activity for me, politicians (and creators of initiatives) sometimes have interesting policy ideas.

**Anyone who would like to submit a guest post about their own candidates/states initiatives related to forests or federal lands issues please consider yourself invited** I know there is a carbon tax initiative with (some) funding that would go to forests that sounds interesting in Washington State.

It all started when I was on gubernatorial candidate’s website here (Jared Polis of Colorado) doing research prior to filling out my ballot. “I’m running on a plan to bring Colorado to 100% renewable energy by 2040, we can’t afford to wait.” Now I live in a part of Colorado where propane tanks are pretty obviously providing the main source of heat. This was concerning to me, as I am still paying for a new energy-efficient gas tankless water heater. I thought of us converting to electric heat, or researchers finding a carbon-free substitute that will work in natural gas appliances. So I typed in a convenient chatbox on the Polis website and found out that 100% renewable really meant electricity. Whew!

I read further on the site:

“Some of our highest-skilled, and hardest working, women and men in the state currently work in coal or oil & gas development, and we cannot ignore the impact the transition to a renewable energy economy is having on our friends and neighbors. As Governor, I would recognize the importance of skills learned in coal and oil & gas development towards building a 21st century energy portfolio that will revitalize our rural communities and create jobs in infrastructure, manufacturing, and renewable energy development.

In both the short and long term, this transition will help fuel a vibrant Colorado economy. Projections show that reaching our renewable energy goals in Colorado will create over 49,000 construction jobs and over 21,000 operations jobs while saving consumers 10 percent on energy costs. “

It kind of sounds like if we have 100% renewable electricity, we won’t need natural gas, so geologists and others can retrain (or start a beer business and run for office, like our current governor, John Hickenlooper). But won’t we still need those folks to find and develop natural gas for the other uses (and other states)?

So I thought, well maybe, even though natural gas in heating and cooking occurs, it’s nowhere on the scale of natural gas used in electrical power generation, so we’ll need a lot fewer folks. But when I went to the ever-handy EIA tables (for example, here), it looks like more is used for residential than for electric power in the cold months. I found the same pattern in California, which has about 10x the industrial use of Colorado and uses it year-round. I’m assuming I’m reading these correctly, but if I’m not please let me know.

Well, back to the federal lands angle:

I’ll collaborate with everyone willing to contribute to achieve this goal. This has been my exact approach in Congress. For instance, I teamed up with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) to streamline permitting procedures for solar, wind, and geothermal projects on public lands. Working with Republicans, Democrats, and other constituencies to cut red-tape and compliance costs around clean energy projects is an important and necessary bipartisan route to success.

Hmm..one person’s “red tape and compliance costs that need to be reduced” could be someone else’s “vital environmental protections.” Since we seem to be using natural gas for the foreseeable future, why not honor the folks who can make its extraction and use more environmentally friendly?

5 thoughts on “Polis Renewable Energy Goals and the Lingering Need for Natural Gas”

  1. Sharon,
    Thanks for this post. You have an uncanny knack for intuiting complexity in areas many smart people are prone to over-simplify. Unfortunately, renewable energy is one such area where many smart and well-meaning people jump to simplistic solutions. In many states transportation is a much larger user of fossil fuels than power generation, and there are quite a few where residential and industrial uses also outweigh generation, so the emphasis on power generation can seem a little arbitrary. Most particulate pollution today is from vehicles (or forest fires!), so claims that more solar and wind would reduce local pollution are often incorrect.

    Also, arguing for mandated renewable energy targets by projecting cost savings to the customer has always seemed weird to me. If there were a cost savings, power companies would already be adopting more solar and wind. In fact, they are; but mandating more adoption than they are already doing seems bound to increase prices, not decrease them. Beyond a certain market penetration, variable generation renewables become exponentially more expensive — it remains to be seen whether 100% renewables is even possible. The experts I know do not think it is possible with current technology: more job retraining opportunities!

    • Certainly experts are currently disagreeing. Even to the extent that one academic sought a lawsuit against other academics who disagreed with him. Here’s a link to one article about that disagreement.

      Of course, people disagree especially about studies that are founded on assumptions which can be questioned. Of course, that’s how scientific inquiry is supposed to work. What I found interesting in that particular article about the Jacobson controversy was this:

      “Jacobson’s 100 percent renewables plan uses hydropower as a clean, flexible resource to backstop the days when wind and solar don’t produce enough to run the country. The system fails or succeeds on the ability of U.S. hydropower resources to step in and fill any shortfalls.

      In the text of his article, Jacobson describes no significant alteration to U.S. hydropower assets to make his system work. That’s important, because new hydro construction has essentially disappeared in recent decades due to environmental protections, cost of labor and other factors. Reliance on major hydro construction would render the roadmap considerably more difficult to achieve.

      The authors of the critique noticed that a graphic in Jacobson’s article depicted instantaneous hydropower discharge at roughly 15 times the capacity listed in the study’s documentation.

      This unexplained discrepancy, they argued, unraveled the entire premise. If Jacobson can’t balance the grid without an inconceivable and unexplained multiplication of installed hydro capacity, then one can no longer accept the conclusion that the 100 percent renewable grid is a realistic goal.”

  2. Biomass gasification and pyrolysis are mature technologies that can be used to produce syngas – usable as a substitute for, or as a mixture with, natural gas. The technologies are complex and evolving . They produce low emissions and can be used, with modification, in existing infrastructures. As such they offer a most promising approach to the increased use of our vast and virtually untapped forest energy resource. Their use, in combination with solar and wind, seems to offer the most promising option in our quest for the holy grail of 100% renewable energy.

  3. How about a pipeline clearcut right through our forests of southern Oregon exporting Colorado natural gas to China? How does that fit into sustainability, renewable energy plans? It seems like it is about to happen.

    • Bob, I guess like all natural resource questions, it depends on how you look at it. If China’s other choice is coal, then it would be good climate-wise for them to have natural gas instead. There are also aspects of international trade and our relationships with other countries that are involved in these kinds of things. I’ve never understood all that, nor do we have to describe them in EIS’s so I haven’t learned about them.

      When we did do EIS’s on coal, we had to figure out where it might be sold and whether our making a particular number of tons available would add to the total used, or whether the coal plants would just substitute coal from somewhere else in the absence of a specific mine. For the LNG, assuming the Chinese need it, they are likely to buy it from somewhere else.

      The best thing we could do is develop low carbon technologies (like Mac mentions above) that are cheaper and better than LNG and export them instead. But that won’t work for the needs China apparently has right now.


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