I revisit an old Australian television commercial for gas, and muse on how it seems to have morphed into energy policy…
It was meant to be a jingle, not a prophecy…
In Australia back in 1990, we were subjected to a saccharine , family friendly bit of advertising extolling the virtues of “natural gas” for cooking. The tag line? “Why gas? Well just because!”.
Twenty two years later, you could be forgiven for thinking that energy policy makers had been locked in a room and shown this commercial non-stop, Clockwork Orange style. Because whenever you look for an answer to the question “Just what the hell are we going to do next about energy?” the answer seems to come back, regular as, well, clockwork.
It’s high time Australian’s really started asking “why gas”? Because let me tell you, the harder I look, the less it stacks up as a sound choice for the country’s future.
Firstly, cost. Forget about today, when we build baseload it lasts for 50 years. It is no secret at all that businesses chase the highest price, and more and more, for gas that highest price is outside of Australia. The price of gas seems set to rise, a lot, such that talk of outright protectionism for the Australian consumer has been seriously raised. It is a perfectly straightforward notion that tying ourselves to this one option is unwise, to put it mildly.
Secondly, greenhouse gas emissions. “Better than coal” is, quite frankly, no kind of ringing endorsement, but that is the only way gas looks good in this department. Where we should be shooting for as close to 0 kg GHG per kWh as we can get for any new build in energy, gas gives us between about 360g (in a combined cycle turbine) and 520g (in an open cycle turbine), which we will then be stuck with for the next 50 years. Better than the 740g you get from the best coal technology? Yes, but it’s like a gentle tap on the brakes as we speed towards a cliff (reference for those numbers).
What’s more, depending on the source, the processing, transport and end use, the gap between gas and coal may be less than most of us think when the product is an export. Here are some pieces of the abstract from Paul Hardisty et al’s recent paper in Energies
… if methane leakage approaches the elevated levels recently reported in some US gas fields (circa 4% of gas production) and assuming a 20-year methane GWP, the GHG intensity of CSG-LNG generation is on a par with sub-critical coal-fired generation… When exported to China for electricity production, LNG was found to be 22–36 times more GHG intensive than wind and concentrated solar thermal (CST) power and 13–21 times more GHG intensive than nuclear power which, even in the post-Fukushima world, continues to be a key option for global GHG reduction.
Thirdly, there’s the tricky issue of dimming. Bear with me, time to get climate sciencey with help from my friend Tom Wigley. (This issue has been summarised at Brave New Climate and the paper is available online.)
Thing is, the filthy pollution of coal has one redeeming feature: it has a dimming effect. That is, it’s blocking incoming solar radiation. It’s a form of shade, basically, holding temperatures down a bit.
With a wholesale switch to gas, which is cleaner burning, we take that negative forcing away (allowing temperatures to climb more and faster) without sufficiently cutting the levels of greenhouse gas so as to overpower this effect with an even bigger negative forcing. So if we are going to cut coal, as we must, we need to do it with something that emits as close to zero greenhouse gas as possible to counteract and overpower the impact of this loss of dimming over time. That’s not gas. It is looking increasingly like a very ill conceived gamble. In Tom’s words:
On balance, these factors more than offset the reduction in warming due to reduced CO2 emissions.
… which begs the question: Why do it? Why commit so hard to gas, policy after policy? Volatile price, high greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient climate benefit.
Why gas? I can only come up with two answers:
- Well just because… it’s not coal
- Well just because… it’s not nuclear, which is politically awkward
Truly, it is the quintessential compromise that fails everyone, and we seem stuck with it because no one is up for the fight for nuclear.
Except… that’s becoming a little bit less true every single day. More and more people are pulling on the gloves and stepping up to the ring to make the case for nuclear to be fairly considered as an option for our country.
Answering that is our job. 🙂