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Natural Gas Complements Renewables

by Bill Edmonds
Sustainable Business Oregon, May 11, 2010

Oregon stepped out in front of the pack when it announced it was going to obtain 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. That is a challenging goal and I support it. I also believe natural gas will play an integral role in meeting these goals, providing a low-carbon solution that integrates with these renewable, intermittent resources.

Scientists and engineers regularly make new advances and discoveries in their work to develop carbonless energy, but wind and solar energy aren't always able to meet peak loads. In fact, wind turbines in eastern Oregon were at a standstill during some of our coldest days last winter. As the amount of wind turbines grows, the swings in wind speed produce an ever increasing integration challenge for the Bonneville Power Administration and for local electric utilities.

While the amount of wind turbines is increasing, we're not yet close to meeting our current base loads with renewables. Wind and solar only provide enough power in Oregon for 15 days, and we've fully allocated our hydro resources. The reality is that Oregon relies on coal for nearly 40 percent of its power generation.

We have challenges ahead in meeting an ever larger renewable goal and reducing emissions, but natural gas will help us get there. The clean-burning fuel can produce energy when called upon, while emitting less than half the carbon dioxide of coal and one-third of oil. Plus, it's domestically abundant. An abundant supply does not mean we can use gas wastefully, but does suggest it's a resource we can rely on. This is why Natural Resources Defense Council and World Watch Institute support the efficient use of natural gas, both used directly in the home and to back up intermittent energy sources.

The Pacific Northwest Utility Conference Committee (PNUCC) gathers data from the region's electric utilities 10 year plans and found that natural gas plants will provide about two thirds of the energy to meet future power needs. In the United States, this number is even more dramatic with the Department of Energy estimating that 900 of the next 1,000 power plants built in the United States will use natural gas for power generation.

While natural gas is plentiful in North America, it is not located in any abundance here in Oregon. It must be piped in from Canada and the Rockies. Western Oregon has a single gas pipeline serving its needs. To ensure an adequate, reliable supply to the region and to help keep prices down for our customers, NW Natural is partnering to propose the Palomar pipeline. The eastern end of Palomar from Madras to Molalla will connect our customers to a second interstate pipeline and more domestic gas.

On a much smaller scale, I've taken advantage of the symbiotic relationship between natural gas and renewable energy at my home. I recently replaced my electric water heater with a solar thermal system that relies on natural gas to provide back up. The panels on my roof will allow me to heat about 60 percent of my annual hot water from the sun's energy — even here in cloudy Portland.

The hot water is plenty hot and always available. While I enjoy the comfort and convenience, I have also dramatically reduced my family's carbon footprint. My older electric water heater had a carbon impact of about 4.8 metric tons of CO2 per year, while my new system walks lightly on the land with annual emissions of about .59 metric tons. That is an 87 percent reduction in emissions.

My family's journey is not all that different from the one on a larger scale that we're taking as a nation. We are eager to add all types of renewable generation into the mix, but the integration of these resources brings hidden costs. In our home or in our country, we won't accept a system that is sometimes available and sometimes not. For my house and for our nation, this means a growing partnership between renewable energy and natural gas.

Bill Edmonds is the director of environmental management and sustainability for Northwest Natural. He currently serves on the boards of the Oregon Environmental Council and Earth Advantage and sits on the Governor's Task Force to develop an Energy Performance Score for homes and buildings.
Natural Gas Complements Renewables
Sustainable Business Oregon, May 11, 2010

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