Thursday, March 3, 2011

Using more natural gas is not the answer

Natural gas seems to be the fossil fuel darling these days.  At one point, it was merely a waste product of oil and coal production but now has reached the point of it being an essential component to our total energy picture.  T. Boone Pickens has a bold strategy to ween ourselves from foreign oil that advocates for a massive investment in wind power so that we can divert the natural gas used in electricity production to automobile use.  His primary motivation seems to be stemming the export of $700 billion of US wealth each year to foreign oil suppliers.  Pickens references the fact that 90% of our current natural gas consumption is met by our North American supply.  His plan to increase the percentage of renewables in our electricity grid is right on, but the idea that we should use more natural gas (even in the short term) is completely wrong. Domestic fossil fuels are no better than foreign ones, and both are leading us down a road to major economic and environmental troubles.

The price of natural gas, like many commodities, is difficult to predict.  A 40-50% swing up or down from one year to the next is common.  Homeowners and businesses need predictable prices to make sound investment decisions as to what sort of heating, cooling, and electrical equipment they should buy.  Natural gas had no real value until the 1970s and prices had remained flat for years.  In the early 1990s with natural gas prices still cheap, natural gas suppliers encouraged the widespread adoption of gas water heaters, gas clothing dryers, and forced air gas furnaces for home heating.  Most American homes use natural gas in some way, 22% of our electricity comes from it, we use it to make fertilizer for growing our food, and some want to shift our transportation system to use more of it.  As domestic demand has exploded so has international consumption of natural gas. Natural gas prices spiked up in 2008, crashed down in 2009 with some major new finds, and is now trending up again as the price of oil reaches $100 per barrel once again.  By committing to wider consumption of natural gas, we're not moving ourselves off the energy price roller coaster.

The solution to this dilemma is to improve the energy efficiency of our homes so that we need less energy.  Stopping air leaks and super-insulation is the first and most economic step.  Once we have high performance structures, a retrofit with better energy systems will be more cost effective.  Start with a solar water heating system for domestic water heating needs.  Then look towards adding a hydronic heating system with the fuel source coming from a combination of geothermal and/or solar supplemented by a natural gas back up unit. Augmenting this heating system with a pellet stove or masonry heater would even further reduce your exposure to rising natural gas prices.  Renewable energy systems such as solar photovoltaics could then meet a building's electricity needs with a smaller up front cost. The key is to have multiple energy options.  Relying on a single fuel source puts your budget at risk to even moderate price escalation.

Our reliance on foreign energy is one of the major problems that we are facing today.  T. Boone Pickens is a man who knows energy and his plan is a great way to bring widespread attention to the fact that the solution is not to be found by drilling more wells.  The wind component of the plan and the assessment of the transportation fuel dilemma are completely admirable parts of his plan.  Unfortunately, relying on natural gas to power the shift from oil could lead to more of the same energy troubles that we are seeing today.  We need to design our future buildings in a smarter way and retrofit our current ones with energy saving technology.  Retaining, consuming, and reusing the energy already hitting our buildings everyday is where we should focus our attention.  Solar energy is a key component to a brighter future.  Let's not cloud our minds or environment further by merely shifting our attention to another fossil fuel.

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