Energy News Today

What’s Worse for the Environment: Natural Gas or Rare-Earth Metals?

Projected demand for rare metals production required to meet Paris climate accord CO2 emission goals. Source: “Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity and generation in the Netherlands.”

by James A. Bacon

Tom Hadwin is one of the smartest, most well-informed commentators in Virginia on the subject of the electric grid, utility regulation and Dominion Virginia Energy. He sets a high standard for the discussion about energy policy in Virginia. He is calm, rational and fact-based, he refrains from ad hominem attacks and does not engage in partisan hysterics. It is a pleasure exchanging views with him, even when we disagree, and I would recommend readers with an interest in the future of the electric grid to read his thorough and thoughtful comments on Dominion’s 2020 Integrated Research Plan, which you can find below.

That said, Hadwin advances several propositions that are at debatable. In this post, I wish to focus on one in particular: the way he frames his analysis to include the system-wide costs of drilling and distribution when calculating the environmental costs of natural gas and ignoring the system-wide costs of mining and processing rare-earth metals when calculating the environmental costs of solar panels and wind turbines.

Hadwin observes that many energy executives and financiers promoted natural gas as the “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future on the grounds that CO2 emissions from power-plant combustion are half that of coal. But he goes on to argue that it is not adequate to consider natural-gas combustion alone. One must take a holistic approach of natural gas drilling, fracking, and distribution as well as combustion. Writes Hadwin:

Firing generators with gas does reduce some of the problems associated with coal. However, producing gas using hydraulic fracturing has contaminated over one trillion gallons of fresh water. Climate risks have not been reduced by the shift to gas, according to peer-reviewed research. Methane leaks in the production zones, in storage locations, and along the pipeline transportation network offset the savings in CO2 releases that gas-fired plants offer. Twenty years after its release, methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas compared to CO2. Methane leaks have been measured and are greater than previously estimated. They are not large and many can be remedied, but a little methane goes a long way in contributing to climate effects.

I agree it is a valid point to consider the system-wide costs associated with natural gas. What Tom (and others) fail to do is consider the system-wide costs associated with renewable fuels.

Solar power requires the production of solar panels. Wind power requires the production of wind turbines. A report from the University Leiden, “Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity and generation in the Netherlands,” discusses the supply-chain issues associated with solar and wind from the European perspective.

Meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord…

Read More: What’s Worse for the Environment: Natural Gas or Rare-Earth Metals?

2020-10-25 18:26:15

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