Posting in Energy
A recent study shows replacing coal with natural gas might make climate change worse. That's not the whole story.
A recent study suggests replacing 50 percent of coal use with natural gas might actually make climate change worse over the short term. It's a stunning conclusion that would appear to debunk the often-touted benefits of natural gas and give renewable energy a considerable boost. But that's hardly the whole story.
Unfortunately, in a rush to report the news, much of the media coverage has missed or failed to highlight an important detail. The study, conducted by Tom Wigley with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, used computer simulations to project that the amount of methane leakage from gas wells during production -- which will increase as natural gas replaces coal-fired power plants -- will cause global temperatures to rise over the next 40 years.
Burning less coal would reduce carbon dioxide emissions. However, the computer simulations used in the study focused on the impact of methane leaked from natural gas wells during the production process. To be clear, there's considerable debate about how much methane actually leaks into the atmosphere during unconventional natural gas production. But it's concern because methane is a greenhouse gas emission more powerful than carbon dioxide.
The study included a graph [via UCAR] that shows a link between future high temperatures and the amount of methane leaked.
So, the natural conclusion would be that natural gas will cause global temps to rise. Blogger Robert Rapier astutely noted that the media missed an important piece of the study:
Notice that the projected temperature increases in every case -- even when there is no methane leakage. That indicates that something else is going on here.
Indeed. So why the heck do the computer simulations show rising temps even when there's zero methane leakage? Two words: sulfur dioxide. Rapier again explains:
Coal has higher particulate emissions that increase air pollution, but they help reflect the sun away from the earth.
In other words, the nasty air pollution that turns the Shanghai skyline into a hazy mirage and creates acid rain, also has a cooling effect. (See Shanghai below, and the coal barges in the foreground). It's a point that only a few outlets, such as MIT's Technology Review, highlighted in their coverage of the study.
Upon this discovery, Rapier took the next logical step and called the study's author to ask if based on the computer models, did this mean that temperatures would rise over the short term even if the world replaced coal with a zero emissions source of electricity like solar or wind?
The answer? Yes.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't replace coal with cleaner fuel sources. To the contrary, the air pollution coal produces has a direct impact on public health. Nor is this an attempt to support natural gas. Natural gas justifiably has its fair share of detractors and hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to unlock gas trapped in shale, is hardly innocuous.
This does show the complexity of dealing with climate change. And it illustrates the problem with the coal versus natural gas debate and how quickly studies can be spun accidentally or even purposefully to suit a particular viewpoint.
For example, a paper released this year from Cornell University received quite a bit of coverage after declaring that natural gas produced from shale is dirtier than coal. For folks concerned about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, the study was a confirmation of their fears and provided a pretty strong argument against the drilling method.
As I wrote at the time, natural gas is far from the wonder fuel its supporters claim it to be. But the Cornell study can't be taken seriously because of inadequate data and a serious methodological problem. Which is to not say it's wrong, just that we have no real way of knowing. And in fact, the lack of available data was something even the author readily admitted to.
Sep 13, 2011
There is so much potential to using geothermal energy rather than fossil fuels, and it lies literally below our feet. Wake-up America! We need to push our politicians into some forward thinking. There is more power potential in one geothermal 'well' than all of the power generation currently being used.
"based on the computer models, did this mean that temperatures would rise over the short term even if the world replaced coal with a zero emissions source of electricity like solar or wind? The answer? Yes. " Most estimates are that the full warming effect of the release of greenhouse gases takes 600-1000 years. Any computer model worth its salt would reflect that. Most people would date the beginning of industrialization to the invention of the steam engine in 1712. The warming we are experiencing now is from CO2 released during the 1700's, not the 20th Century. There's a lot more to come, even if all fossil fuel use ceased today.
Consumers can end this debate by choosing to heat, cool, and power their homes using solar, wind, geothermal systems and wean themselves off of fossil fuels. Check out: http://www.energysage.com/blog
"There is more power potential in one geothermal 'well' than all of the power generation currently being used." You're kidding right? That's absurd! While geothermal is one potential alternative energy source, it's hardly anything close to that outlandish claim. Some power is generated, but nowhere near that claim, plus most areas have little to no access to viable commercial geothermal. Ridiculous!
It's a good attempt to scare us all but don't let anyone be misled by Fatchance's ignorant claim that the warming we are experiencing today is due to CO2 released in the 1700s! For a start there wasn't a significant amount of additional man-made CO2 put into the atmosphere until post-World War II industrialisation. Secondly, CO2 mixes into the atmosphere very quickly so its warming effect is almost instantaneous (a matter of months). Thirdly, although it is true that the oceans will warm up more slowly than the atmosphere as a result of the warming effect of the added atmospheric CO2, this will take just a few years. Fatchance is misinformed because he hasn't properly understood that the sea warming effect is logarithmic over time with a steadly slowing-down 'tail' to the warming curve which actually, mathematically speaking, carries on at an ever-diminishing rate to infinity. But the logarithmic nature of the rise in sea temperature is such that 95% of the warming effect will have occurred within about decade. Finally, the above warming issue in any case makes a huge assumption: that the quantity of CO2 now being added due to industrialisation will have a significant or even noticeable warming effect anyway. That's still a matter of considerable debate.