It sometimes seems most people think electricity comes from the wall, unaware of the upstream sources of it, but an equally common belief is that we simply use too much or waste too much. Accordingly, objections to natural gas are often prefaced with the plea, "can't we just use less?". The answer is yes, but at the same time, let's pat ourselves on the back for one of the few energy successes: continual advances in efficiency.
The declining amount of energy use is counter-intuitive to people in general and green arguments in particular. In this case, alarmist greens find themselves in the strange position of denying both reality and good news. According to the alarmists, any drop in energy seen in the UK has only been due to a combination of exporting manufacturing (and jobs) and reduced economic activity.
This extremely busy looking chart from the physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, shows that in the US, growing natural gas use does not, as the University of Manchester Tyndall Centre on climate change tells us, impede either renewable growth or uptake in efficiency.The US economy back in 2011 grew while the UK's flatlined. In Q4 for example the US grew by a rate of 3% as the UK declined by -0.1 %.Yet:
Americans used less energy in 2011 than in the previous year due mainly to a shift to higher-efficiency energy technologies in the transportation and residential sectors. Meanwhile, less coal was used but more natural gas was consumed according to the most recent energy flow charts released by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Wind power saw the biggest jump from .92 quadrillion BTU, or quads, in 2010 up to 1.17 quads in 2011. (BTU or British Thermal Unit is a unit of measurement for energy and is equivalent to about 1.055 kilojoules).
"Wind energy jumped significantly because, as in previous years, many new wind farms came online," said A.J. Simon, an LLNL energy systems analyst who develops the flow charts using data provided by the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. "This is the result of sustained investment in wind power."
The reality is the natural gas revolution, does indeed do what it says on the tin. It provides lower CO2, lower costs and more secure supplies, the whole point of EU climate policy. Especially worth considering for UK greens is that judging by the US experience, both wind and solar appear to be thriving. As I've pointed out in the past, the energy revolution of the US oil sector is not only the increasing oil production, but also the overall energy fitness due to significant drops in demand via efficiency standards for cars. Returning to the LL Labs, the overall picture is one of thriving renewables, thriving gas, declining CO2 and declining energy use:
Sustained low natural gas prices have prompted a shift from coal to gas in the electricity generating sector," Simon said. "Sustained high oil prices have likely driven the decline in oil use over the past 5 years as people choose to drive less and purchase automobiles that get more miles per gallon."
The majority of energy use in 2011 was used for electricity generation (39.2 quads), followed by transportation, industrial, commercial and residential consumption. However, energy use in the residential, commercial and transportation sectors decreased while industrial energy use increased if only slightly.
"With the advent of shale gas, it appears that natural gas prices in the United States may remain lower than their historical averages for many years into the future," Simon said. "This has prompted many gas users in the industrial and electricity generating sector to switch from coal or oil to natural gas when it is technically possible, but might not have been economical at higher gas prices."
It would appear that for UK greens, at least the growing number of pragmatic ones, as opposed to the alarmist tendency trapped by outdated concepts of expensive gas providing the foundation for policy, the only thing to fear is fear itself.
Back in the US, it's sometimes best to move away from science and go the market-place. The south east US has traditionally been fueled by a coal heavy generation fleet. Generators in places like Georgia didn't have access to cheap gas from Texas, nor imports of hydro electricity from Quebec important to New York and New England. We don't need to point out that the southern US is inherently conservative and that includes generators. But this report, from the usually gas un-enthusiasts at US National Public Radio, shows how things change when reality finally dawns. First one needs the gas revolution from producers, next we need the gas realisation from end-users, as it slowly dawns on even the most cautious, that yes, this time it's different:
Just a few years ago, Georgia Power generated nearly three-fourths of its electricity with coal. Last year, for the first time, natural gas edged out coal, and just this week the company announced plans to close 10 coal-fired power generators within the next few years.
"We do recognize this is a historic event for our company. We've never announced this many closings at one time," says Mark Williams, a company spokesperson.
If all goes as planned, within a few years only a third of the company's power plants will run on coal. The company has already built three new natural gas plants. It's expanding a nuclear plant and going bigger into solar and wind, Williams says.
The detractors of shale gas in Europe can be divided into noisy alarmist greens, but also the far more taciturn big investors who suddenly see business models for coal, nuclear, smart grid, CCS, long distance pipelines such as Nabucco or even LNG threatened. Until now, the quiet big guys have depended on the useful idiots of environmental objectors who have a media footprint far greater any actual polling figures. What we need to see in Europe is a shale realisation as much as a shale revolution.
In board rooms across the country, electric companies are deciding that many coal plants, especially small, older ones, just don't make economic sense any more. One factor is the expectation that low prices for natural gas will continue because of the shale gas boom across the country.
Later this month in Vienna, as you can see from the ads on the right, there'll be a co-location of the conventional European Gas Conference held in Vienna this time every year and the Unconventional Gas Conference. Conventional gas companies have strong ties with or often are the same entities as electricty generators. It's a shame the events aren't rolled into one, but just being in the same building will provide an opportune time for both sides to talk,build alliances and shock horror to shale gas antis: actually build something positive for CO2 reduction. Even better, instead of the especially alarmist UK branches of green groups, there will be several global environmental NGO's. We can deal with those people, whereas the UK branches seem to be intent on being left behind bitter enders. For now anyway.