Clean & Clean-burn: Renewable Energy & Natural Gas powered Electricity Grids

by John Brian Shannon

Clean and Clean-Burn: Energy, the way it should be

Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.
Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.

Of all the energy that is available to us, solar energy is by far the most available and the most evenly distributed energy resource on planet Earth.

Wind and Solar + natural gas = Synergy

  • Solar is available all day every day. But not at night.
  • Wind is available day and night, but it can produce variable power levels as the wind blows over the landscape.
  • Meanwhile, offshore wind turbines produce constant power, spinning at constant speeds for years at a time — except when an operator locks the blades during large storms or during the annual maintenance inspection.

Both solar power and wind power face varying levels of ‘intermittency‘ — which requires the use of ‘peaking power plants‘ or ‘load-following’ power plants — to meet total demand.

‘Catch my Fall’ — All electrical power generators are interdependent

How electricity grids use different power generators to meet total and constantly changing electricity demand.

In the case of renewable energy, the negatives include some variability in the total output of solar power or wind power generation due to temporary cloud cover or storms. At such times, natural gas-fired generation can ramp-up to cover any shortfall.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. Some gas-fired power plants are called peaking power plants which quickly ramp-up to meet output shortfalls. In fact, peaking power plants (which are almost always gas-fired) were created to meet temporary shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

Also in the case of renewable energy, another negative is that the Sun disappears at night and solar panels stop contributing to the grid. And unless you have offshore wind turbines to make up the shortfall, onshore wind turbines may fall short of total demand. So at night, you need reliable power to make up shortfalls in primary generation.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. To cover this situation load-following power plants were designed to meet larger output shortfalls. In fact, load-following power plants were created to meet larger, daily, shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

In the case of natural gas, the negative is that gas is subject to wild price swings, thereby making gas-fired generation very expensive. Which is why it evolved into peaking power plants, less often in the load-following role and almost never as a baseload power generator.

The other negative associated with natural gas is of course, the fact that gas turbines put out plenty of CO2. That we can deal with. Unlike coal, where the CO2 portion of the airborne emissions are almost the least of our worries — as coal emissions are loaded with toxic heavy metals, soot and other airborne toxins.

How can we deal with the CO2 emitted by gas-fired power plants?

As gas-fired peaking power plants typically fire up anywhere from a couple of dozen hours annually, to a few hours of every day (usually to cover the additional load of many air conditioners suddenly switching on during hot summer days, for example) we aren’t talking about a whole lot of CO2.

Gas-fired load-following power plants typically run for a few hours every day and to cover demand in case of primary generator (like hydro-electric or nuclear power plant) maintenance. In the case of load-following plants, much more CO2 is produced annually.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) of gas-fired CO2 emissions via tree planting

  • Peaking power plants operate for a few hours per year. We’re not talking that much CO2.
  • Load-following power plants operate for many hours per year. More CO2.

But still, each mature tree absorbs (a low average of) 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere and keeps it in storage for many decades. Some trees, like the ancient Sequoia trees in California, are 3700 years old and store 26 tons of CO2 each! Certain trees native to Australia store even more carbon and live longer than Sequoia trees.

And, as anyone who has worked in the forest industry knows; Once that first planting hits maturity (in about 10 years) they will begin dropping their yearly seeds. Some trees like the cottonwood tree produce 1 million seeds annually for the life of the tree. American Elm trees set 5 million seeds per year. More trees. Always good.

It’s an easy calculation: “How many tons of CO2 did ‘ABC’ gas-fired power plant output last year?”
Therefore: “How many trees do we need to plant, in order to cover those emissions?”

Simply plant a corresponding number of trees and presto! gas-fired generation is carbon neutral

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired peaking power plant contributes and planting enough trees each year to cover their CO2 contribution, tree planting could allow gas-fired power plants to become as carbon neutral as solar power or wind power.

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired peaking power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a relatively small number, per local power plant.

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired load-following power plant contributes and planting enough trees annually to cover their CO2 contribution they too could become just as carbon neutral as solar panels or wind turbines. Many more trees, but still doable and a simple solution!

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired load-following power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a much larger number. But not an impossible number.

So now is the time to get kids involved as part of their scholastic environmental studies, planting trees one day per month for the entire school year.

Let the gas-fired power plant operators contribute the tree seedlings as part of their media message that the local gas-fired power plant is completely carbon neutral (ta-da!) due to the combined forces of the power plant operator, the natural carbon storage attributes of trees, and students.

Up to one million trees could be planted annually if every school (all grades) in North America contributed to the effort — thereby sequestering an amount of CO2 equal to, or greater than, all gas-fired generation on the continent.

It’s so simple when you want something to work. Hallelujah!

Baseload, peaking, and load-following power plants

Historically, natural gas was too expensive to used in baseload power plants due to the wildly fluctuating natural gas pricing and high distribution costs, but it is in wide use around the world in the peaking power plant role, and less often, in the load following power plant role.

Renewable energy power plants can be linked to ‘peaking’ or ‘load-following’ natural gas-fired power plants to assure uninterrupted power flows.

Peaking power plants operate only during times of peak demand.

In countries with widespread air conditioning, demand peaks around the middle of the afternoon, so a typical peaking power plant may start up a couple of hours before this point and shut down a couple of hours after.

However, the duration of operation for peaking plants varies from a good portion of every day to a couple dozen hours per year.

Peaking power plants include hydroelectric and gas turbine power plants. Many gas turbine power plants can be fueled with natural gas or diesel. — Wikipedia

Using natural gas for baseload power

Natural gas has some strong points in its favour. Often it is the case that we can tap into existing underground gas reservoirs by simply drilling a pipe into naturally occurring caverns in the Earth which have filled with natural gas over many millions of years. In such cases, all that is required is some minor processing to remove impurities and adding some moisture and CO2 to enable safe transport (whether by pipeline, railway, or truck) to gas-fired power plants which may be located hundreds of miles away.

It is the natural gas market pricing system that prevents gas from becoming anything other than a stopgap energy generator (read: peaking or load-following) and almost never a baseload energy generator.

Let’s look at local solutions to that problem.

Waste-to-Fuels

Several corporations are working with local governments to find innovative ways to capture landfill methane gas to produce electricity from it.

Keep in mind that the methane gas that escapes from every single landfill in the world (whether still operating or having ceased operations long ago) is 23 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2.

Increasingly, landfills are now installing perforated pipes underground which draw the landfill gas (so-called ‘swamp methane’) to an on-site processing facility. It is a low-grade gas which is sometimes blended with conventional natural gas to create an effective transportation or power generation fuel. Visit the Caterpillar Gas Power Solutions website here.

Waste Management is a global leader in the implementation of this technology, using its own landfills and municipal landfills across North America to produce over 550 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power more than 440,000 homes. This amount of energy is equivalent to offsetting over 2.2 million tons of coal per year. Many more similar operations are under construction as you read this. Read the Waste Management landfill bioreactor brochure (downloadable PDF) here.

Durban, South Africa, a city of 3.5 million people, has created a huge Waste-to-Fuel landfill power plant that provides electricity to more than 5000 nearby homes.

Durban Solid Waste receives 4000 tons of trash each weekday which produces some 2600 cubic metres of gas every day of the year.

The GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant arrives in 4 large shipping containers, and once connected to the gas supply pipeline it is ready to power nearby buildings and to sell surplus power to the grid.

One GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant unit can generate 1 million kWh per year from waste heat and avoid more than 350 metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the emissions of almost 200 cars.

Blending Conventional Natural Gas with Landfill Gas

As conventional natural gas is expensive (and much of the cost is associated with transportation of the gas over long distances) when we blend it 50/50 with landfill gas, we drop the cost of the gas by half. Thereby making blended natural gas (from two very different sources) more competitive as a power generation fuel.

By blending conventional natural gas 50/50 with landfill gas; We could produce baseload power with it — but more likely than that, we could use it to produce reasonably-priced load-following or peaking power to augment existing and future renewable energy power plants — rather than allow all that raw methane from landfills to escape into the atmosphere.

Best of Both Worlds — Renewable Energy and Natural Gas

Partnering renewable energy with natural gas in this way allows each type of power generator to work to their best strength — while countering negatives associated with either renewable energy or natural gas.

Renewable power generation and lower cost natural gas can work together to make coal-fired electrical power generation obsolete and accelerate progress toward our clean air goals.

Related Articles:

new lens scenario
Royal Dutch Shell New Lens Scenarios
Our latest scenarios explore two possible versions of the future seen through fresh “lenses” to take us to the year 2100.

BP Energy Outlook 2035
BP Energy Outlook 2035
This edition updates our view of the likely path of global energy markets to 2035.

 

Our Energy Future includes good news too!

Most of the world’s energy supply is fossil fuel based. However, recent successes in renewable energy foretell a ‘cleaner’ future energy mix. Image courtesy of: www.drsoram.com
Most of the world’s energy supply is fossil fuel based. However, recent successes in renewable energy foretell a ‘cleaner’ future energy mix. Image courtesy of: www.drsoram.com

by John Brian Shannon

Most of the world’s energy supply is fossil fuel (86.2%) based. However, that statistic is set for unprecedented change as recent successes in renewable energy foretell of a ‘cleaner’ energy future.

World energy consumption increases every year, while the kinds of energy we use is changing, and environmental standards are (unequally) improving worldwide.

In short, we are using more energy — but it is ‘cleaner’ energy.

For instance, half of the added electrical capacity every year comes from renewable energy. And with major political initiatives in many countries promoting renewable energy, it is realistic to think that the share of renewables will increase over the coming decades.

Even major petroleum companies are changing their ways.

A recent, landmark report by Royal Dutch Shell illustrates a dramatically new order among the various kinds of energy and how the energy we use will change over the next 80-90 years. In Shell’s; NEW LENS SCENARIOS – A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE FOR A WORLD IN TRANSITION the company discusses two different scenarios, named ‘Mountains’ and ‘Oceans’ in our global energy future.

The boom in natural gas figures prominently, with natural gas quickly ramping-up to become the number one kind of energy in the world by 2030.

“The underlying pent-up demand for gas is very strong… we see it being sucked up, every molecule.” — Jeremy Bentham, the main authour of the NEW LENS SCENARIOS – A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE FOR A WORLD IN TRANSITION, talking about the anticipated level of demand for natural gas between now and 2030

Solar energy becomes the dominant kind of energy by the mid-2060’s supplying 38% of all demand worldwide!

  • By 2060, the report has PV solar power moving from today’s 13th-place, into 1st-place, to provide at least 38% of global energy demand. See: Shell Sees Solar As The Biggest Energy Source After Exiting It in 2009.
  • Due to enhanced Carbon Capture and Storage and clean combustion technology; “Global emissions of carbon dioxide dropping to near zero by 2100.”
  • Shell New Lens Scenarios says; “By 2100, energy from oil will account for only 10% of worldwide energy use and natural gas will account for just 7.5 percent of the global total.”

While the ‘energy produced to emissions released ratio’ looks utterly dreadful over the short term, over the long term it looks quite wonderful. If only we had a time machine to take us to the latter half of this century, we could all go for a nice breath of fresh air!

For more information, please visit the following websites:

JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

To follow John Brian Shannon on social media – place a check-mark beside your choice of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn: FullyFollowMe/johnbrianshannon

Washington, D.C. — Union Station Now Powered by 100 Percent Wind Energy

Washington, D.C. — Union Station Now Powered by 100 Percent Wind Energy | 15/04/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Union Station Goes 100% Wind Power

(Washington, D.C.) The most visited tourist site in Washington, D.C. strengthens its dedication to environmental sustainability.

Washington, DC Union Station. Image courtesy: Mike Sandman
Union Station, Washington, DC. Image courtesy: Mike Sandman

Union Station has signed a three-year contract for 100 percent WGES CleanSteps® WindPower from Herndon-based Washington Gas Energy Services (WGES).

One of the nation’s premier, historic transportation hubs, Union Station previously used 50 percent WGES CleanSteps® WindPower for its electricity needs.

“Reducing our environmental impact is a key priority for Union Station and using renewable wind energy greatly aids us in decreasing our carbon footprint.

As one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world, Union Station’s switch to wind energy through Washington Gas Energy Services is an important milestone in its history and a great opportunity to inform visitors about wind energy’s viability for businesses of all sizes.” — Roy Staeck, vice president of business development for Union Station

Month-long Interactive Eco-friendly Event at Union Station

Union Station is hosting Earth Month 2013, a month-long event throughout April featuring interactive, eco-friendly experiences designed to raise awareness of environmental issues and encourage sustainability. Presented by Earth Day Network and the Premier Tourist and Landmark Association, this event will reach the more than 100,000 visitors who travel through Union Station’s doors each day. As an event sponsor, Washington Gas Energy Services will educate attendees about how they can reduce the environmental impact of their energy use through carbon offsets and wind power.

Calculate Your Carbon Foot Print

What is your carbon foot print?

No matter where you are in the world, you can measure your carbon foot print here. 

How to get Green Energy Working for You!

In the District of Columbia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, businesses, organizations, government entities, institutions and individual residents can purchase their electricity and natural gas supply from retail energy providers. Customers in Virginia may purchase natural gas and customers in Delaware may purchase electricity from retail energy providers. To learn more about WGES and its CleanSteps® products, visit http://www.wges.com.

Washington, DC government agencies to run 100% renewable energy

Washington, DC government agencies to run 100% renewable energy | 22/03/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Until now, U.S. government buildings in Washington, D.C. have had 50% of their electrical power needs met with wind-turbine powered electricity supplied by Washington Gas Energy Services CleanSteps® WindPower. That percentage increased recently to 100% as part of the government’s renewable energy target and building efficiency improvement plan.

http://www.eere.energy.gov/topics/wind.html
The United States has tremendous wind resources both offshore and on land. In 2012, the total installed wind capacity in the United States reached 50,000 MW. That’s enough to power more than 12 million homes annually, and it represents an 18-fold increase in capacity since 2000. — photo courtesy of U.S. DoE

Using 100 percent wind power for electricity equates to the Washington, D.C. government avoiding the consumption of 32,825,000 gallons of gasoline or taking 61,000 cars off the road for a year. The world’s fastest-growing energy resource, wind power displaces conventional power, reduces carbon dioxide and helps eliminate air pollution.

“Going green helps foster economic growth and creates modern and vibrant communities across the District of Columbia,” said Brian J. Hanlon, Director, Department of General Services.

“Our goals are to become more energy efficient and reduce our carbon emissions, and our strategic partnership with WGES is playing a role in helping us achieve these objectives.” – WGES press release

Even prior to this announcement, Washington, D.C. held the record among U.S. cities for the highest total renewable energy use at over one billion kilowatt hours per year – or, 11.4% of it’s total electricity consumption.

To read a complete breakdown of U.S. cities and their renewable energy use in 2012, visit this EPA Green Power Community Challenge Rankings page.

“We have stated our mission for Washington, D.C. to be the cleanest, greenest city in the nation, which includes the use of renewable energy for our power sources.

We’re proud that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized Washington, D.C. as the leading Green Power Community for our commitment to purchase green power.” — Keith Anderson, Director, District Department of the Environment

In his National Geographic NewsWatch piece, Sam Brooks, Associate Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of General Services and head of its Energy Division said, “conservative estimates indicate a long-term purchase of regional wind power could save more than $100 million over 20 years.”

What could be better than breathing clean air while saving 100 million dollars?

Related Articles:

NOTES:

  1. The U.S. Department of Energy funds R&D to develop wind energy. Learn about the DOE Wind Program, how to use wind energy and get financial incentives, and access wind energy information.
  2. In the District of Columbia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, businesses, organizations, government entities, institutions and individual residents can purchase their electricity and natural gas supply from retail energy providers. Customers in Virginia may purchase natural gas and customers in Delaware may purchase electricity from retail energy providers.
  3. To learn more about WGES and its CleanSteps® products, visit www.wges.com or call 1-888-884-WGES (9437).

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom?

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom? | 18/03/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the cleanest fossil fuel of all?

You guessed it! Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel – and by significant margins as data from the Environmental Protection Agency illustrates in the chart below.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emissions of many of the most harmful pollutants. — naturalgas.org

After investigating the externalities associated with conventional sources of energy and cognizant of their commitments towards clean air, many nations have begun to embrace natural gas as a stepping stone towards a cleaner energy future.

In the U.S.A., as far back as 2003 when coal supplied more than 50% of America’s electrical power, coal-fired plants have been retired more quickly than new ones have come online. By 2012, coal supplied only 38% of U.S. electricity.

Nine gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generation was shut-down in 2012 alone, and replaced by an almost equal amount of natural gas power generation. Emission levels from those comparably-sized replacement natural gas power plants are less than half of those retired coal-fired plants!

Many more U.S. coal-fired power plants are scheduled for complete shutdown, or conversion to natural gas over the next few years totalling 35 GigaWatts (GW) according to the experts.

Chart courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration — shows carbon emissions dropping as a result of switching from coal to natural gas,  2005-2012.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Carbon emissions of all end-use Sectors have decreased since 2005 in the United States.

The largest reductions appear to be due to the Electric Power and Transportation sector’s emissions, followed by the Industrial, Residential and Commercial sectors.

[Of all sectors] “the largest reduction to carbon emissions is due to coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ and construction of higher efficiency power plants. 

Expansion of renewable power, overwhelmingly due to expanded wind power, has been the second largest factor to reduced Power Sector carbon emissions.” – theenergycollective.com

Many expert studies show CO2 emissions dropping as a result of the combined effects of many countries switching from coal to natural gas and/or renewables, 1990-2100.

Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell 'New Lens Scenarios'
Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the energy choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell ‘New Lens Scenarios’

The change-up to renewable energy will vary by country as OECD nations continue to take the lead in renewable energy between now and 2100. Even so, total worldwide emissions will drop dramatically and the switch from coal to natural gas is one big step towards a cleaner environment.

Related Articles: