Credit: Tod Baker via Creative Commons

I read in the Denver Post earlier that the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dan Arvizu, said at a conference recently, “if we don’t start phasing out even a scale-up of natural gas by 2040, 2050, we will not achieve any of the carbon loading goals we have set for ourselves.

On a related note, Think Progress reports that the “International Energy Agency Finds Safe Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate,” based on the conclusions drawn by the IEA in its recent Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas report.

They’re right, of course. Natural gas alone is not the solution to climate change or to our reliance on other, dirtier, fossil fuels. It may be better than coal or oil, but it should never be viewed as more than an intermediate step.

Besides, if we allow the gas industry to become as powerful as the oil and coal industries, we’ll probably have to fight the gas industry in 2040 in much the same way that we’re fighting coal and oil now.

So is there any place for natural gas in a renewable energy economy?

Some argue that there is no place at all for natural gas; while it may generate lower carbon emissions than coal, it is still a fossil fuel and therefore must be phased out as quickly as possible.

It’s hard to argue with that, but the problem remains that we still don’t have a fully viable alternative to energy generated using fossil fuels or nuclear power.

Don’t get me wrong: wind, solar, wave, and geothermal energy are fantastic. I have every confidence that these forms of energy production will reach the point where they provide all the energy we need.

But they’re not there yet. There are still some problems with these forms of energy that have not been fully addressed. The wind isn’t always blowing, the sun isn’t always shining, geothermal and tidal power are only available in certain regions, and the U.S. power grid isn’t nearly efficient enough to transport energy from one region to another. Unfortunately, that means that electricity from those sources is currently not as reliable as energy produced from coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants.

It’s true that a diverse energy grid drawing from of a variety of renewable sources can easily provide base load power. However, due to the intermittent nature of most varieties of renewable energy, renewables can’t produce power in a way that effectively meets peak energy demand.

Coal and nuclear power plants are also much more efficient at providing base load than peak load, because these power plants rely on turbines powered by steam. Once a coal or nuclear plant is ‘turned on’, it often takes days before it is operating at full efficiency.

Battery technology hasn’t yet reached the point where excess energy generated using renewable sources can be stored and then released later to address peak demand, so what do we do until it reaches that point?

That’s where natural gas comes in. In natural gas turbine power plants the combustion of the gas itself spins the turbine, so gas power plants don’t take nearly as long as coal or nuclear to reach peak efficiency. This makes power from gas turbines the ideal candidate to handle peak load. In fact, that’s exactly how they’re used today.

Even though the primary methods of producing natural gas are oil wells and fracking, these are not the only options. Natural gas can also be captured from ranches and landfills, or created with fermentation. When produced using these options, natural gas is much cleaner than when produced with fracking.

So yes, natural gas does have a place in a renewable energy economy, but only when used responsibly – as a complement to, not a replacement of, renewable energy.

Until better battery technology arrives, we don’t really have another option.


Image Credit US Coast Guard

In 2011, the top five oil companies (BP, Chevron, Conoco, Shell, Exxon Mobil) posted a combined profit of $137 billion. In the first quarter of 2012, these companies earned a combined $33.5 billion.

These windfall profits were enough to put Exxon and Chevron in the first and second spots, respectively, of the Fortune 500 most profitable list.

Last year, fossil fuel companies got $11 billion in government subsidies.

How can we justify giving these companies our tax dollars when budget cuts have forced the de-funding of social programs and the layoffs of over 100,000 teachers nationwide?

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announced they will introduce the End Polluter Welfare Act to Congress.

“People are sick and tired,” said Sanders, “of seeing the same folks who want to cut nutrition programs for hungry children fight tooth and nail to preserve federal tax breaks that go to Exxon Mobil – one of the most profitable corporations in history.”

This legislation will save the Federal government (and taxpayers) over $11 billion annually by doing away with fossil fuel subsidies, such as tax breaks, special financing, and taxpayer funded research and development.

According to, getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies will put $807 per year back into the pockets of US taxpayers.

The fossil fuel industry receives nearly six times more in government subsidies than the renewable energy industry. This creates significant entry barriers (see oligopoly) for the renewable energy industry and stifles competition.

A fact sheet hosted on Senator Sanders’ website shows how doing away with fossil fuel subsidies will save money in the years to come. I’ve listed some of the highlights below:

– $14 billion saved by eliminating the intangible drilling deduction, which allows oil and gas companies to deduct up to 80 percent of the costs of drilling.

– $12 billion saved by repealing a law passed in 2004 that allows oil companies to claim manufacturing tax credits.

– $6.8 billion saved by closing the loophole that allows corporations like BP to deduct costs incurred from cleaning up spills and paying damages. How can we expect oil companies to prevent spills if they can rely on taxpayers to pay for cleanup?

– $10.6 billion saved by recouping lost royalties for offshore drilling in public waters.

The End Polluter Welfare Act is good for the economy because it will reduce market distortions, put money back in the pockets of taxpayers, and promote green job creation.

Senator Sanders is asking citizens to speak out against corporate welfare by calling and emailing their senators and representatives, or by signing the petition.

Updated to include tips on saving money on heating during the winter. 

This spring, it seems like every time I turn on the news there’s a story about how temperature records are being set all over the world. If this trend continues (and I’m sure it will) record breaking summer temperatures will undoubtedly take a toll on your wallet.

There are plenty of expensive ways available to reduce your heating and cooling expenses, like buying a solar thermal system, replacing all your windows with triple-paned glass or re-insulating your home, but many such measures are expensive and time consuming.

By trade and education, I’m an economist. There are very few things that economists love more than efficiency. Below I’ve outlined many free or cheap ways to cut down on your energy bill and keep your home comfortable this summer (and winter).

Install weather stripping around all your doors and windows; it will keep the comfortable air inside your home, and the hot or cold air out. Weather stripping is cheap and easy to install and you can buy it at any hardware store.

Use your light bulbs efficiently. This doesn’t just mean buying energy efficient light bulbs. Compact Fluorescent bulbs are great in places where the lights are on for more than 15 minutes at a time, but don’t forget that CFL bulbs show significantly decreased lifespan when used for short periods at a time. Incandescent bulbs have lasted longer in my bathroom and hallway lights than CFLs have. Keep your old incandescent bulbs to use in fixtures like these.

Lower your blinds/drapes during the day in the summer, and make sure to raise them in the daytime in winter. If your blinds are anything like the flimsy ones in my apartment, you might also want to curtains that block the light better during the hottest parts of the day. Your cat might love the warm patches of sunlight on the floor, but once the heat gets into your home it’ll be there for a while.

Open your upstairs windows to let warm air rise up and out of your home.

Make sure ceiling fans are set properly. All ceiling fans have a switch on the base to select between winter and summer modes. This makes a bigger difference than you expect.

Plant shade trees on the sunny side of your house. Poplars are a good choice because they grow very quickly and have a fairly full canopy (but they do use a lot of water). You won’t begin to reap the benefits from this until next year, but you’ll be surprised at how much it helps. If you live somewhere with cold winters, make sure to consider if the benefit in summer is worth the cost in winter.

Paint your house a light color and install light-colored shingles (ok, that might be a bit more expensive). The light colors will reflect a lot of the sun’s heat and will save you a lot of money compared to a house with dark paint or shingles. And hey, maybe you’ll even contribute a bit Earth’s albedo.

Buy a programmable thermostat, and don’t forget to program it. Programmable thermostats are surprisingly cheap and easy to install; mine set me back $12 and took me five minutes to install. Set it to cool (or heat) your home while you’re there and to turn off when you’re gone.

Turn off your appliances. Stoves and ovens are an obvious source of heat and use a lot of electricity, make sure you’re not leaving them on when they don’t need to be. Please don’t interpret this as advice to use your stove as a heater in the winter (but maybe you could find an excuse to do a little more baking than usual).

Lighting (especially incandescent), computers, and TVs also generate a lot of heat and add to your electric bill, so make sure these items are off if you aren’t using them. I keep many appliances (within reason) plugged into power strips that I turn off whenever I’m out of my apartment for a while.

Hang out in the basement! It stays cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Most basements stay between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit year round.  When you’re in your basement you also don’t need to heat or cool other rooms.

Service your AC, furnace, or hot water heater. A/C units with clogged filters or old coolant are significantly less efficient and will take a lot more energy to cool your house. Old furnaces and water heaters do not heat as efficiently.

Inspect your refrigerator door to make sure there’s no trapped dirt interfering with the seal. Refrigerators use a ton of electricity, so this is great advice. Thanks to reader zeusalmighty for this tip.

If you can think of anything I didn’t add, please leave a comment and I’ll put it in.