With all the emphasis on clean energy in recent years, natural gas has earned an undeservedly bad reputation. The good news is, a flood of newer studies, including a powerful one conducted at the University of Texas at Austin late last year, is growing public awareness of the truth about this energy source. That is, that gas-fired energy is likely our best bet for a successful Clean Energy Plan.
Many believe we can expect gas-fired power generation—and the development of new technologies supporting it—to skyrocket as a result. Several technologies are already pushing forward. Of these, gas-powered micro grids are the most significant, promising to completely transform the electric power infrastructure in America—a notion supported by a recent large-scale collaborative study led by the Center for Renewable Resource Integration, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, at the University of California, San Diego.
The right place at the right time
The gas-fired micro-grid model is well positioned for widespread adoption, and here’s why:
Businesses increasingly rely on digital databases for survival, meaning, power outages can carry catastrophic consequences. Never mind hurricanes and earthquakes, events as simple as a mild rain or wind storm or an unexpected, everyday technical failure can create a blackout capable of mass data destruction.
The microgrid system is attractive to these businesses because it works much like a massive back-up generator that can provide emergency power to smaller areas—city blocks, compounds and so on. And what makes the micro-grid system extra attractive is that it’s also capable of efficiently supplementing that area’s daily energy needs. When you consider the increasing need for the data backup micro-grid systems can provide, and the growing attractiveness of gas-fired power generation, it’s easy to understand why analysts are optimistic about the future of this new energy infrastructure.
More on UT Austin’s Study
The large-scale study, whose results were released in a series of white papers late last year, was designed to figure out which energy sources were best for the U.S., based on the factors of cost, impact on public health and environmental effects. The included power sources were coal, solar, nuclear, wind and natural gas. In the end, wind and natural gas were the winners.
What Makes the Study So Powerful?
The power of UT Austin’s study lies in its transparency. The university’s research group, the Energy Institute, headed the project. The group knew going in that, as a fossil fuel study being conducted at a Texas university, its results were sure to attract some serious scrutiny. So, they designed the study with meticulous attention to detail to ensure balanced and fair data collection that would, for the most part, be immune to that scrutiny.
One of the ways they did it was through a holistic research approach, pulling literature and opinions from all kinds of fields, including economics, engineering, law and public policy. Energy Institute Director Dr. Tom Edgar said in an interview with the UT News, “These are complex, interrelated issues that cannot be adequately addressed from one perspective. We assembled a cross-disciplinary team to provide a fuller understanding of these costs and their policy implications.”
As part of their efforts to promote an open dialogue among policymakers and other stakeholders around the study—and in the industry—the UT Austin team developed a set of online calculators using estimates from the collected data. The tools are designed to give everyone involved a clearer (and consistent) picture of the financial implications associated with new electricity generation and its policies.
Joshua Rhodes is the paper’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Energy Institute. In an interview with UT News he said a team of experts debated long and hard over a series of assumptions to decide the tool’s estimates. “We think our methodology is sound and hope it enhances constructive dialogue. But we also know that cost factors change over time, and people disagree about whether to include some of them.” He said the team, “[“]wanted to provide an opportunity for people to change these inputs, and the tools we’ve created allow for that.”
The researchers also traded some standard methods for a few novel approaches in their research. For example, Austin analyzed the data they collected to calculate specific costs of each technology per U.S. county—creating a very targeted break down. Even more interestingly, while the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) formula has been used to estimate electricity costs for years, Austin’s work took the factors of public health impact and environmental effect into account.
The Study’s Nuts & Bolts
Following is a bulleted breakdown of how the study worked.
5 Electrical Systems Tested:
5. Natural Gas
Analyzed for 3 Categories:
2. Generation Technologies
3. Hardware Required to Connect End Users/Generators
Based on these Factors:
1. Power Plant Costs (operating and capital)
2. Environmental and Health Costs (air quality and greenhouse gases)
3. Infrastructure Costs (rail, pipelines and transmission and distribution lines)
4. Fuel Cost (variability and full fuel cycle)
5. Energy Resource Integration (renewable and distributed)
6. Energy Efficiency
7. Government Subsidies for Electricity Generation
The results showed that, for the High Plains, the Midwest and into Texas, wind energy was the best option. But natural gas was the best option for most of the rest of the U.S., and nuclear energy was best for 400 of the 3,110 counties assessed nationwide.
Any way you look at it, natural gas is in our future—and that’s a very good thing. Because, regardless of the business we’re in, the country we call home or the political party we affiliate with (if we affiliate with one at all) we share the same planet, and our great, great, great grandkids will share the same atmosphere. So, let’s keep talking about natural gas and its potential as a transitional fuel to support the Clean Energy Plan. And let’s support studies like UT Austin’s, that promote awareness of the benefits of natural gas, helping dispel the myths that could keep us from achieving the clean air future we all hope for.
About the author: Greg Hernandez spends the majority of his days at R.W. Lyall, putting his marketing degree to good use in the world of energy, utilities and pipeline components. When he’s not wearing his marketing manager hat, Greg enjoys writing about industry issues that (A) he finds interesting or that (B) bother him. Being that he tends toward optimism, “interesting” is most often Greg’s writing topic of choice.