Tag Archives: natural gas

Pembina, Suzuki Foundation urge a slowdown on natural gas development, particularly shale gas

Two of Canada’s top environmental NGOs — the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation — issued a jointly prepared study today slamming our rising dependence on natural gas, warning that the fossil fuel, while generally cleaner than coal, could seriously slow down efforts to combat climate change if our increased reliance on it begins to bump renewables such as wind, solar and biomass from the future energy mix.

Natural gas is often called a “transition” fuel because it emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants than coal and is a good dance partner with renewables — that is, when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow a natural gas-fired power plant can kick in quickly to fill the gap. But beyond serving that purpose, the two organizations argue natural gas shouldn’t become the default option, especially if a rising portion of that gas is coming from shale deposits where drilling and extraction processes can affect local drinking water and lead to higher emissions compared to conventional natural gas development.

“Shale gas requires up to 100 times the number of well pads to extract the same amount of gas as conventional sources, and recent shale gas development in the U.S. has had major environmental impacts,” said Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Expanded natural gas production in Canada would bring a host of problems — as well as making it harder to fight climate change.”

I’ve written extensively about the environmental risks of shale-gas development, how low natural gas prices resulting from shale development are contributing to increased oil sands development, and how the physical footprint of shale gas developments should give wind NIMBYs pause for thought. I’ve also been sounding the alarm for a couple of years now on the dangers of becoming over-dependent on natural gas and how this “cleaner” fossil fuel would, with the rise of shale gas, eventually become a lightning rod in the climate-change (and water quality) debate. In my view, and to reuse one analogy I’ve used in the past, natural gas might be the “light” fossil fuel, just as you can purchase “light” cigarettes. But in the case of cigarettes, whether light or normal, they still cause cancer and heart disease, and certainly smoking twice as many light cigarettes to wean yourself off regular cigarettes will make matters worse. The point is you have to wean off all cigarettes, period. We need to treat natural gas like we treat nicotine patches and gums — something that’s used temporarily and in moderation to beat an addiction to something we know, from a health and environmental perspective, is bad for us over the long term.

Stephen Colbert gets it. (link only works for Canadians — Americans can see clip here).

Unfortunately, when Canada’s energy ministers meet next week in Alberta, I’m sure any talk of a national energy strategy will put the economy first. After all, we know asbestos causes cancer yet Quebec is permitted to continue selling the dangerous stuff to third-world countries. So will the Pembina-Suzuki report have any impact on outcomes? I doubt it. There will be welcome talk on the need to develop shale gas resources more responsibly, but the focus will be simple: let’s develop as much as possible as quickly as possible, sell it to the world, create jobs, and make a few hundred people really rich. There will be no talk of moderation, either for natural gas development or the oil sands.

That seems, these days, to be the Canadian way. Drill baby drill. Extract baby extract. Sell baby sell.

Help for renewables: new GE natural gas turbine meshes flexibility with combined-cycle efficiency

Natural gas-fired power generation has generally been considered necessary for the transition away from dirty electricity generated from coal toward clean electricity generated from renewables. Wind and solar are intermittent so integrating them into the grid means we have to be able to balance their intermittencies against another source of power generation that is flexible. That “other” source is natural gas, which despite its own controversies (particularly around emissions and water contamination as they relate to shale gas production) is generally much cleaner than coal.

But here’s the problem: There are two basic ways of deploying natural gas-fired power plants. One is in single-cycle mode, where you run the fuel once through a gas turbine. This kind of plant is usually used for peaking purposes because it can ramp power output up and down quite quickly, and because of this flexibility it is generally matched up with renewables — i.e. when the wind stops blowing the single-cycle peaking plant ramps up accordingly, and when the wind picks up the gas plant ramps down. This assures demand and supply on the grid remain in proper balance.

Unfortunately, single-cycle plants are not efficient. Only between 33 and 40 per cent of the natural gas fuel that goes into it produces electricity. The rest is lost as waste heat. Now, the alternative is to build combined-cycle plants. With these plants, natural gas fuel goes into a gas turbine, but the waste heat is captured and used to power a steam turbine. A combined-cycle gas plant can be between 55 and 60 per cent efficient. But the tradeoff is that it doesn’t have the flexibility that comes with single-cycle mode. So combined-cycle plants tend to run more like baseload generation, but with minor flexibility to adjust to slow-moving changes in system load. In other words, combined-cycle gas plants and intermittent renewables can play together but not very well.

Now, all of this is background for what I really want to tell you: General Electric announced yesterday in France that it has developed a new power plant design that achieves the flexibility of single-cycle with the efficiency of combined-cycled. The new plant, called FlexEfficiency 50, is basically a combined-cycle plant with 61 per cent efficiency that’s based on jet engine technology (a newly developed 9FB Gas Turbine) and waste-heat capture for driving a steam turbine (109D-14 turbine). GE has rated the plant’s output at 510 megawatts. According to GE, the plant can ramp up by 50 megawatts per minute, which is apparently double the ramp-up rate that exists today.

This might not seem like a big deal, and it’s certainly not the sexiest of stories, but if we’re going to rely more on natural gas as we transition to renewables, and if more of that gas is going to come from shale resources (meaning it will have a larger carbon footprint), then having a natural gas plant that’s both efficient and flexible is actually a very good thing to have over the coming years. This is especially true in regions such as California and Ontario that are hoping to integrate a large amount of renewables into their systems over the next decade.

Why cancellation of the Oakville power plant won’t cost us $1 billion

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press about how the Liberal government’s cancellation of TransCanada’s natural-gas power plant in Oakville could end up costing taxpayers/ratepayers $1 billion or more. The emphasis here is on could. Sources have cited legal opinions that suggest TransCanada could sue the province for $1 billion or so, which is roughly the estimated cost of the plant. That’s an unlikely outcome, and I’ll tell you why. TransCanada does a lot of business in Ontario, and while this plant was an important project in its pipeline it also knows that it’s past and future relationship with the province is more important. It’s that old saying, “Don’t bite that hand that feeds you.” TransCanada is in no rush to piss off the Ontario government or Ontario taxpayers, it just wants to be treated fairly and be considered for future business. Fact is, the province has been good to TransCanada. Continue reading Why cancellation of the Oakville power plant won’t cost us $1 billion

A coming convergence in the energy sector?

I got my start in mainstream journalism as a technology and telecommunications reporter for the Globe and Mail, a beat I later took on at the Toronto Star and covered for six years before switching to energy. When I first started we were still using the term “information highway” to describe the coming convergence between the telephone and cable companies. Cable companies in Canada had their own networks, their own turfs, and their own regulated monopolies, while the phone companies had the same. The turfs overlapped, but the products and services stayed largely separate. You got cable from the cable guys, and phone service from the phone guys. The information highway threatened to change that, allowing the phone and cable guys to invade each other’s turf and bust through their respective monopolies.

The commercial Internet was still in its infancy and was considered part of the information highway. It was only in the mid-1990s that the Internet emerged as the dominant disruptive force in this technological vision. Internet Protocol, the communications standard underpinning the Internet, allowed all sorts of information — text, audio, video — to be treated as packets of data that could be shipped at high speed across cable and phone networks, which were privately operated networks that had on-ramps and off-ramps to the public Internet. As networks became faster, as compression of data got better, as computing power and memory grew exponentially, it became technologically possible and economical to deliver phone, broadcast, e-commerce, Web surfing and e-mail over both the cable and phone networks. The result: network convergence. Suddenly technology was creating competition in these regulated monopolies, forcing regulators to adapt and establish rules that permitted regulatory forbearance when competition in a market was deemed acceptable. For the phone and cable companies, the gloves were off. It was game on. 

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m seeing the same thing happening in the energy sector. Continue reading A coming convergence in the energy sector?

Chasing a fossil-fuel fugitive

My Clean Break column today takes a look at “fugitive” emissions — typically methane — from the natural gas and oil sectors in Canada. I like to call them the industry’s dirty not-so-little secret, because when we think of fossil fuels we think mostly about the emissions that result from their combustion. But not as much, if any, public attention has been drawn to the unintentional (i.e. leaks) and intentional (i.e. venting) of methane at processing facilities and along pipeline infrastructure. Fugitive emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sectors in 2006 amounted to the equivalent of about 60 megatonnes of CO2, up 65 per cent since 1990. Surprisingly, this represents nearly 8 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. As you’ll read from the column, the biggest problem is a lack of regulation and ability to detect these emissions. Once that’s solved, often it’s just a matter of tightening a bolt.