By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
After spending the afternoon travelling to drilling pads and compressor stations for the extraction and processing of unconventional oil and gas in our nearby communities, I travelled to the Niehaus Farm in the beautiful hills of West Virginia to visit with Rich and Felicia Niehaus. As the discussion centered on energy issues, it became evident that there is something crucial missing from the conversation about unconventional oil and gas issues:
energy conservation, energy efficiency, or renewable energy.
Conversations usually cover either fracking or energy conservation, efficiency, and renewables (ECER). It’s the exception for both to be covered in tandem even though they are the two sides of the same coin (Here, and here are examples of that exception). So, how did our conversation at the farm end up turning to ECER? Well, it turns out that this particular farm in West Virginia is entirely solar powered (photo above). Energy for the two barns and a beautiful home comes from rooftop panels installed in May of 2011. After finding funding and rebates to help with the upfront installation costs and participating in a renewable credits program, as of last year the Neihaus family spent $0.00 on utility bills. Their farm even generated a surplus of electricity, which they sold to the utility company as Solar Renewable Energy Credits – or SREC.
Perceived Barriers to Renewables
Why don’t more people follow this route? I only have anecdotal answers right now. When discussing fracking or unconventional oil and gas with folks, I ask why they haven’t considered solar as an energy source. Their responses vary but generally look like:
- It never even entered my mind.
- I’ve heard about solar and wind but heard they are really expensive.
- No one sells or installs them around here.
- Seems like a lot of work and expense.
Unlike the landman from the oil and gas company who calls or visits your home to talk to you about the benefits of selling your mineral rights for fracking or pipelines, no “sunman / windman / efficiencyman” calls or comes to your home to share the benefits of ECERs. There are few billboards or stories in our local or national media telling us how renewables can power the nation and keep the lights on. However, there are few or no print advertisements for solar, no polished TV ads on the clean energy of solar, wind or geothermal.
Basically, while coal, oil and gas are promoted – and receive generous federal incentives – at every turn or click, the benefits of ECER are truly missing from our conversation, locally and nationally.
What if we decided to include the benefits of ECER in all of our conversations about fracking and fossilized sources of energy? Here are just a few items to keep in mind when sharing information that would move us to a more positive energy system future.
First, remember that coal, gas and, nuclear plants are highly intermittent over long time periods, such as their operating year or life span, requiring planned and unplanned maintenance and repair. An article in Cleantechnica tells us that as a result of this downtime, nuclear plants only generate electricity 83% of the time; combined cycle natural gas plants, 86% of the time; and coal plants, 88%. “Coupled renewable systems, like wind with solar tied to baseload power like hydropower, geothermal and solar thermal (with molten salt energy storage) are examples of reliable, dependable energy systems. Solar thermal plants are up and running 98% of the time; hydroelectric dams, 95%, and geothermal plants, 91%.1 According to a FracTracker analysis of Ohio wind potential:
If OH were to pursue the additional 900 MW public-private partnership wind proposals currently under review by the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), an additional 900,000-1.2 million jobs, $1.3 billion in wages, $3.9 billion in sales, and $102.9 million in revenue would result. If the state were to exploit 10% more of the remaining wind capacity, the numbers would skyrocket into an additional 5.5-7.1 million jobs, $8.1 million in wages, $23.8 billion in sales, and $627.9 million in public revenues.
Enough Energy to Power a Nation
Sustainably harnessing enough power to fuel a nation requires conservation and efficiency. According to a recent analysis by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the US actually wastes 61-86% of the energy it produces. This figure is especially outrageous because the tools and technology needed to save a significant portion of this wasted energy are available right now and would easily fall under President Obama’s “shovel ready” label. For instance, in the past few years, net-zero buildings — those that produce as much (or more) clean energy on site as they use annually — have been gaining momentum. More than 400 such buildings are documented globally, with about one-fourth in the U.S. and Canada.
Knowing the considerable negative impacts of fracking, it is incomprehensible that a targeted national energy conservation and efficiency conversation has yet to take place, and that state policies promoting ECER like those in Ohio are actively being undercut. Energy conservation and efficiency, when coupled with renewables have the capability to power the nation.2
Gas – Nonrenewable, Finite, Declining
Unlike ECER, oil and natural gas are finite resources. Additionally, highly productive, economically recoverable shale wells have very high geological depletion rates and will become more difficult and more expensive to access.3 “The average flow from a shale gas well drops by ~50-75% in the first year, and up to 78% for oil”, said Pete Stark, senior research director at IHS Inc (a global information company with expertise in energy and economics). In neighboring Ohio, first-year oil and natural gas production declined by 84% (21-48 barrels of oil per day), with respective declines of 27% and 10% in subsequent years, while freshwater usage increases by 3.6 gallons per gallon of oil. Even the United States’ most productive Bakken shale requires 2,500 new wells per year to maintain 1 million BDD, while traditional fields in Iraq require a mere 60 new wells per year. ECERs, on the other hand, are renewable systems with decline rates calculated in the billions-of-years time frame.
Fossilized Energy – Costs Exceed Benefits
Often you will hear that fracking and fossilized energy are “cheap and affordable.” According to a report by Environment America, the reality is that externalized costs of fossilized energy, were they included on the balance sheet, would make gas, oil and coal costly and unaffordable. Alternatively, 53 Fortune 100 Companies report savings of $1.1 billion annually through energy efficiency and renewable energy.4
Some reports indicate that due to the nature of fossil fuel extraction compared to renewables, there are more jobs to be had in renewables.5 There is also the [significantly higher job, tax revenue, and income] multiplier effect associated with renewable energy technologies. The Union of Concerned Scientists reminds us that,
In addition to creating new jobs, increasing our use of renewable energy offers other important economic development benefits. Local governments collect property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners. These revenues can help support vital public services, especially in rural communities where projects are often located.
Along with externalized costs, natural gas also gets a preferred boost from our nation’s R&D funding compared to ECER research. This issue does not even include the de facto subsidies provided by our military escapades, which Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes recently put at $3 trillion. In Scientific American’s article, Fracking Hammers Clean Energy Research, David Bello looked at the budget of the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) and found that five years in, “the gassy revolution was becoming apparent,” with funding going to natural gas research rather than ECER breakthroughs. Bello is of the opinion:
It is also exactly in times of overreliance on one energy source that funding into alternatives is not only necessary, but required. ARPA–E should continue to focus on transformational energy technologies that can be clean and cheap even if political pressures incline the still young and potentially vulnerable agency to look for a better gas tank.
Also, globally, the UN Environmental Program reports that the world spends six times as much money subsidizing fossilized energy as they do renewables. Despite having less government support, renewables have achieved record growth since 2000. The EIA reports that renewables are the fest-growing power source based on percentages, and in 2018 is estimated to rise to 25% of the global gross power generation. The EIA reports that, “On a percentage basis, renewables continue to be the fastest-growing power source… Globally, renewable generation is estimated to rise to 25% of gross power generation in 2018.” Germany alone generates 27% of its energy demand from renewables.
Climate Change – Sources & Solutions
Recent NOAA research suggests fugitive methane leaking from natural gas activity may be substantial, with leakage rates of 4-9% of the total production. This figure is significantly above the 2% recommended level for potential climate change benefits. Ken Caldeira, atmospheric scientist with the Carnegie Institution for Science recently noted:
We have to decide whether we are in the business of delaying bad outcomes or whether we are in the business of preventing bad outcomes. If we want to prevent bad climate outcomes, we should stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump. If we build these natural gas plants, we reduce incentives to build the near zero emission energy system we really need. It is time to start building the near zero emission energy system of the future. Expansion of natural gas is a delaying tactic, not a solution. A switch to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100.
Caldiera and Myhrvold’s paper on transitional energy concludes, “If you take 40 years to switch over entirely to natural gas, you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years [due to the CO2 inertia effect]. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”
No Longer Missing
To make a short story long, that is what’s missing from the conversation – the great story of the benefits and solutions of ECER. How can we move towards a more positive and diversified energy future if we continue to bury the lead? The real solutions to our energy challenge cannot be relegated to a sidebar conversation. A disconnect between what is and what can be will keep us on the path to dire economic and public health impacts.
Back to the Niehaus farm…
As we were enjoying the fresh air, the pastoral beauty and soft sounds of nature that evening, I tried to picture what this landscape would look like, smell like, sound like, feel like, if instead of enjoying this farm fueled by solar, we were sitting back at one of the many homes bordering a drilling pad or processing facility that I had visited earlier in the day. I tried to envision what the wildlife, streams and skies would look like, what the children’s legacy would be, wondering if we were perhaps too distracted calculating costs instead of values.
When speaking of his investment in solar and his approach to life, Rich shares with us that he subscribes to the ancient Indian proverb, “We do not Inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we Borrow it from our Children.”
After this “renewed” experience at the farm that evening, I reaffirmed my efforts to not miss any more opportunities to raise the profile of ECERs when people are debating the pros and cons of fracking and fossils. Energy Conservation, Efficiency and Renewables can no longer go missing from our conversations or we allow the myth to flourish that only fossils can “keep the lights on.” With ECERs in the conversation we may actually transition from this “transition fuel,” to a truly transformational future.
As Buckminster Fuller once said:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
- To learn more, go to the Rocky Mountain Institute website.
- Mark Jacobson, a founder of The Solutions Project continues to crunch the numbers to demonstrate, How to Power the World without Fossil Fuels.
- According to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies
- A report by WWF, Ceres, Calvert Investments and David Gardiner and Associates finds that
- Addressing the issue of job creation, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, “Compared with fossil fuel technologies, which are typically mechanized and capital intensive, the renewable energy industry is more labor-intensive. This means that, on average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.”