Commentary, 11/12 2010

Published Dec 2, 2010
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Cover 11/12 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Other

In the public mind, energy matters are usually thought of as either good or bad, clean or dirty, safe or dangerous – with little middle ground. And as we see the energy mix shifting towards a variety of sources, the debate rages over the optimum mix.

For generating electricity, proponents of hydropower, coal, nuclear, renewables (to name just a few) all make compelling arguments as to why their fuel of choice is optimum – and why the others may not measure up. Coal is plentiful but dirty, nuclear is efficient but waste handling is long-term and expensive, renewables are planet-friendly but are prone to intermittent power drop-outs.

Over time, technological advancements will mitigate the negative aspects (and improve the efficiency) of the fuels and sources we’ll use to generate power. But technology takes time to develop, and natural gas has been singled out to as a fuel to replace coal and possibly to supplement renewables.

In the spectrum of fossil fuels, gas the most clean power source – gas-fuelled power generation produces up to 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal for power. Gas has been touted as a good “transition” fuel as we strive to move toward lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Ormen Lange has been one of the most compelling success stories on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. In addition to the field’s size, expected lifespan and technological challenges, one interesting fact was repeated throughout its development. All the gas produced over Ormen Lange’s life would be delivered to the UK and would be used to produce approximately 20 percent of the UKs power.

The UK’s decision to rely more heavily to gas-fuelled electricity generation turned out to be lucky indeed. With the current surplus of gas on the market, the UK should be well supplied during the transition toward the goal of relying on an increasing percentage of wind-generated power.

We’ve already seen a revolution in tanking up our cars. Ethanol and bio-fuels have begun to supplement transportation fuels in higher and higher percentages. Hybrids and fully electric vehicles are a common sight on our roads.

Automobile manufacturers have rushed to fill what they see the public’s desire for alternatively fuelled private transportation, and we have now have available or have been promised a number of electric autos. Endusers can feel that they are part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. But, as with any source, purely electric autos can be problematic. Battery manufacture and disposal pose environmental challenges. There’s also the question of the environmental value of charging batteries from a power grid supplied from coal-burning generators.

According to NVG Global (the International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles –, at the end of 2009, 11.2 million natural gas vehicles were on the world’s roads and more than 16,500 natural gas fuelling stations were in operation. The numbers are highest in Asia, but they are growing in the West.

Moreover, natural gas for vehicles compliments bio-fuels, using similar, existing technologies. On the roads and manufactured in Brazil, Fiat’s Siena Tetrafuel is popular with taxi drivers. The flexi-fuel vehicle runs on pure gasoline, or a 20 to 25 percent blend of gasoline and ethanol, or pure ethanol – or with compressed natural gas – CNG. How’s that for a hybrid?

Thus far, countries rich with natural gas reserves have led the way in applying the fuel to vehicles, so policymakers elsewhere now have an opportunity to go further to encourage CNG as reasonable alternative.

So gas has not only become plentiful, it has the potential to become the “bridge” to a low-carbon future, filling the gaps as technologies catch up to the world’s energy demands. As Dr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency has asserted, we seem poised to begin the “golden era for gas”.

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