Shellenberger: Natural Gas Makes Renewables Affordable

Plummeting natural gas prices during the past decade have allowed more renewable power onto the grid without breaking the bank, Michael Shellenberger explains in a recent column.

Shellenberger, a progressive Democrat who co-founded the Breakthrough Institute and advocates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, responded to a claim that six states (Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas) derive a large portion of their power from wind and solar yet have average or below average electricity prices.  Shellenberger points out that electricity prices in five of the six states have risen at least triple the national average since 2009 as the states added more wind and solar.

Michael Shellenberger. Image courtesy of Michael

Michael Shellenberger. Image courtesy of Michael

“What is most remarkable about U.S. states heavy in solar and wind is that electricity prices rose so much given the huge decline in natural gas prices,” observes Shellenberger.

“Had natural gas prices not plummeted at what was almost the exact same time as the beginning of the large-scale build-out of solar and wind in the United States, price increases in solar and wind heavy states would have been far larger,” Shellenberger explains.

Not only do falling natural gas prices counterbalance the higher costs of wind and solar power, but the on-demand nature of natural gas power smooths out problematic intermittency in wind and solar power production.

“Integrating solar on to the grid is much easier to do when you can easily turn natural gas plants up and down to accommodate their intermittency. And it’s much easier to do when it is 12 percent of your electricity instead of 20 percent,” notes Shellenberger.

The environmental left vilifies hydraulic fracturing (fracking), yet the fracking revolution is the reason why natural gas prices have fallen so much during the past decade. Technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling in fracked shale formations have dramatically reduced natural gas production costs. Take away fracking, and there will be much less tolerance for high-priced renewable power not counterbalanced by inexpensive natural gas.

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