Saturday, December 19, 2015

2015 A Watershed Year

The year has almost passed.  I wish I can say that we scored a passing grade in greening up.  We only got a D plus this year.  Luckily for us, shale natural gas did a lot of greening up of the grid.  The very low natural gas prices allowed the country’s utilities to switch more power generation from coal to natural gas.  We did install more solar and wind generation but this was not the major factor in lowering the carbon intensity of electric power generation.   

When I wrote my book on energy and sustainability in 2003, coal accounted for 55% of the electrons dispatched on the US power grid.  The US Department of Energy latest short term energy forecast states the following:
“According to the latest available EIA data, electricity generated from natural gas-fired power plants exceeded generation from coal-fired plants in September for the third month in a row.  Before April 2015, the monthly share of total U.S. generation fueled by coal had always been larger than the natural gas share.  Natural gas generation in September was 123,248 gigawatthours, 4% higher than the level generated by coal.  This increased use of natural gas for electricity generation primarily reflects sustained low prices for the fuel.  The average Henry Hub spot price for natural gas was $2.09/MMBtu in November, the lowest price since April 2012.”

The price of natural gas is lower than it has been in decades.  When I worked on hydrogen generation in the late 1970s we bought natural gas for $4 per MMBtu or more than twice the present price.  This week natural gas dropped even further to $1.75 per MMbtu.  Natural gas is being discovered and used all around the world.  We are indeed fortunate that a fuel that has high hydrogen content and lower carbon content continues to be used increasingly over coal which is a fuel that is low in hydrogen content and very high in carbon content.  More hydrogen means water results in combustion of the fuel.  More carbon means more carbon dioxide results in the combustion of the fuel.

The El Nino accounts for some of the reasons of low natural gas prices this winter.  A warm winter in the Midwest and northeast is expected.  For us here in the Bay Area the El Nino will give us good rains that are sorely needed to break the drought.  Also with high precipitation in the Northwest and California the quantity of hydroelectric generation next year is expected to return to normal.  Coal will never return to its former level of share in power generation.

I wish all my readers a happy new year.  We are set upon a path to lower our carbon intensity and will lower our overall carbon emissions.  I do hope that China also starts producing shale natural gas and starts to switch power generation from coal to other sources including natural gas.   The air in Beijing this week was so dirty that the Chinese issued a red alert.  Soon we hope that the air in China is as clean as the air in the Tiburon Peninsula.   I hope that nobody got a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.  I also hope we do not have mudslides from the heavy El Nino driven rains we expect next month.


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