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Milford Wind Corridor, Utah; Photo by American Wind Energy Assn.

One of the big rightwing talking points against pursuing clean energy just got a lot weaker, thanks to a pair of new reports from the Rocky Mountain Institute. We've been told forever that wind and solar (and large-scale storage) will never ever be cheap enough to be economically viable, despite the huge decline in costs of renewable energy over the past decade. Now, the RMI studies project that by 2035, renewable energy will actually undercut the costs of natural gas, to the point that 90 percent of planned new natural gas power plants, and the pipelines that would need to be built to fuel them, won't be able to compete with clean energy. This is good news for the climate, and good news for electric ratepayers -- but only if utilities decide to skip building those gas power plants, which run the risk of becoming expensive white elephants whose losses would have to be eaten by ratepayers.

Instead of natural gas, which has become hugely cheap due to all the fracking, being a "bridge" from coal and oil to a clean energy future, it might make a lot more economic sense for utilities to expand their use of clean sources now, and remember that somebody trying to sell you a bridge is probably running a con.


Besides, as DeSmog Blog notes, even though natural gas emits half the CO2 of coal when burned, its supposed benefits for climate may vanish once you consider the greenhouse gases, particularly methane, released by natural gas production:

[In] 2011, scientists at Cornell University took a closer look at the gas industry's pollution, and particularly its pollution of another greenhouse gas, methane. Burning natural gas instead of coal for power, they found, could be worse for the climate than coal because of the industry's severe issues with methane pollution throughout the supply chain. Their early warnings have since been bolstered by studies from other scientists.

So instead of rushing to build natural gas power plants, some utilities are skipping the "bridge" altogether:

"In the Midwest, Consumers Energy and Northern Indiana Public Service Company are planning to retire most or all of their remaining coal assets and replace them with new [wind, solar, storage] and demand-side resources, avoiding any investment in new gas-fired generation and saving their customers billions of dollars," RMI wrote. "In Colorado, Xcel Energy will retire two coal plants ahead of schedule and replace them with [wind, solar, storage] and demand-side resources, again avoiding any investment in new gas and while delivering savings to their customers."

The savings from decreasing clean energy costs makes good business sense, RMI suggests. If all the planned gas plants were replaced with a "clean energy portfolio" (CEP), the study found, the total savings could be $29 billion, and carbon emissions could be cut by 100 million tons per year -- roughly five percent of current yearly emissions by the power sector. Less natural gas production would also mean less methane going into the atmosphere, too. Look, it is a chart!

Rocky Mountain Institute


And again, if all those gas plants do get built, investors and utility ratepayers stand to eat a lot of costs:

By 2035 — just 16 years from now — it will cost more to keep 90 percent of the proposed new gas power plants in the U.S. running than it would cost to install a mix of new wind, solar, conservation, and storage projects that can offer the same performance. Currently, utilities have 88 gas-fired power plants in planning stages nationwide. "Our approach forces [clean energy portfolios] to match the grid services of gas generation," RMI wrote.

"If planned [gas] projects are built," the RMI report says, "investors will likely face tens of billions of dollars' worth of stranded assets in the 2030s, as running these gas plants quickly becomes more expensive than building new [clean energy portfolios]."

The other report RMI released today looks at the implications of building all the natural gas pipelines that energy companies think will be needed to fuel those new plants. Federal energy regulators, RMI suggests, may want to reevaluate how they determine whether new pipelines are "necessary," taking into account the likely reduced lifespan of those gas plants relative to clean energy development. There again, investors and utility customers may be looking at throwing a lot of money into facilities that won't remain economically viable for very long. Currently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves pipelines if at least one company says "yeah, we need that," but Gillian Giannetti of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that's dumb and we need a modernized regulatory framework:

But many other factors are relevant to whether we need to build a 40+ year asset that requires the taking of private property and has significant environmental and climatic concerns. Examples include demand projections, state policies, the existence of neighboring pipelines that might be able to handle the capacity, and more.

Giannetti also noted that FERC "does not require evidence that the pipeline will be needed for its entire projected lifespan," which is a recipe for approving natural gas projects that don't make sense over even a 20-year time frame. That could be very bad news for the public, even if we weren't facing the challenge to convert to net-zero carbon emissions as rapidly as possible (and yeah, we are):

"The financial implications for gas pipelines, of clean energy out-competing gas power plants, are dire," RMI's pipeline report says, adding that the question is who will ultimately have to bear the costs of choosing wrong. "In many cases, captive customers of regulated gas and electric utilities ultimately bear the financial risks of investment today in assets — pipelines and power plants — that are likely to become uneconomic sooner than anticipated."

With clean energy already on track to be more affordable than other energy sources, there's even more incentive to take bold action on climate. Green New Deal, baby. Yes, even if the fossil fuel companies don't like it. The smart ones are already investing in wind and solar, and in battery research.

[DeSmog Blog / Rocky Mountain Institute / Photo: American Wind Energy Association]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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