The ‘Energy of the Future’ Is Already Here

July 22, 2010

It’s impossible to view television commercials, listen to an interview with an entertainer, or read most political candidates’ mailings without getting the message that the shift toward “green” energy is underway.

The PR barrage is enough to make you think that all new cars are about to be electric, wind turbines will soon permit homes to detach from the grid, and in the not-too-distant future, children born today will work in a “Hydrogen Economy.”

Study statistics, not speeches, and you’ll find a much different story. America’s elites -- whether in government, the arts, or even business -- are energy ignoramuses. Their desire for politically correct power blinds them to the fact that their predictions are hardly new. Biomass, solar, fuel cells: They’ve all been “just around the corner” for decades. While technology breakthroughs are theoretically possible, skepticism is the proper posture. (To the extent that renewables have any market share, it’s the result not of an actual market, but government subsidies and mandates.)

As usual, the arbiters of the nation’s energy discourse -- the word “debate” is not apt -- fail to grasp the importance of a fuel that’s nothing short of amazing. It’s clean. It’s powerful. It’s got a growing, well-developed infrastructure. And it already provides a quarter of the nation’s energy needs.

It’s natural gas.

If not the perfect energy source, natural gas will do until the real one comes along. Unlike nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, or coal mines, natural gas meets nearly every one of our power needs. According to a recent MIT study: “With the exception of the transportation sector, natural gas plays an important art in all end use sectors -- residential, commercial and industrial -- as well as power generation.”

Outside of the Northeast, where oil prevails, natural gas heats most homes. It’s used in many industrial and manufacturing processes. (Agriculture needs it, too, as a feedstock for fertilizer.) And so far this year, it’s generated 21 percent of America’s electricity.

Producing power is something new for natural gas. As it is today, energy illiteracy was widespread in the 1970s. Near the end of the decade, acting under the absurd notion that natural gas was scarce, Congress passed, and Jimmy Carter signed, the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act. It banned the use of natural gas to generate electricity. Nine years later, the ban was lifted. Coal was out of favor, due to tightened air-quality standards, and fission had yet to restore its name. The logical choice for new power plants was natural gas, and with the development of super-efficient, combined-cycle technology, utilities and merchant generators flocked to the fuel.

What about swapping gasoline for natural gas in our cars, trucks, and SUVs? It wouldn’t be a simple conversion, but it’s a far more realistic scenario than switching to batteries and hydrogen. Knowledge about the substance is strong, safety protocols are in place, and the pipeline network is extensive. According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, an industry group, there are “about 110,000 NGVs on U.S. roads today and more than 11 million worldwide.” With the price of a barrel of oil hovering around the $75 mark, natural-gas vehicles are quite competitive with their gasoline-fueled counterparts.

The environmental benefits of natural gas are impressive. Burning it releases far smaller amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides than coal combustion, and no particulate matter. Snookered by the myth that man is scorching the planet to a cinder with carbon dioxide? Then natural gas is for you. It generates less CO2 than other hydrocarbons. Coal has a 2:1 carbon-to-hydrogen ratio. Oil does better, at 1:2. But burning natural gas produces just one carbon atom for every four hydrogen atoms.

Another reason to favor natural gas is that North America is full of it. Thousands of trillions of cubic feet can be found from the arctic to Mexico. And new technologies are enabling its extraction from unconventional sources, such as untapped shale “plays” in the south-central and northeast regions of the lower 48. A pipeline may soon bring huge quantities of the gas south from Alaska.

Why can’t natural gas get any respect? Much of it is drawn from wells in rural areas of Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Not places billionaires, pundits, academics, musicians, and starlets tend to live or frequently visit, are they?

Greens’ wishful thinking can’t alter fundamental laws of physics, chemistry, and economics. Natural gas is the true “alternative” energy, and it promises to remain so for a very long time.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) is a writer, commentator and lecturer. He lives in Connecticut.

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