By Greg Hernandez, Marketing Manager at R.W. Lyall
The advent of more efficient and affordable clean energy in recent years has left natural gas with an unwarranted bad reputation. However, a series of new studies, led by groundbreaking research at the University of Texas, Austin, could help create greater public awareness around the surprising truth of this energy source: gas-fired energy is one of the most realistic hopes for a successful Clean Energy Plan moving forward.
Because of these studies, many energy industry insiders are expecting a surge in gas-fired power generation and the creation of new technologies to support that growth. Among the exciting developments already moving forward are gas-powered micro-grids, a simple idea with the potential to completely revolutionize electric power infrastructure in America.
Poised for large-scale adoption
With businesses increasingly reliant on digital databases, even brief power outages can have widespread repercussions. This positions the gas-fired micro-grid approach as an ideal solution for large-scale adoption. Far from the violent natural disasters you might be imagining, events as common as mild rain, a wind storm or a simple, unexpected technical failure can account for blackouts capable of massive data loss.
The micro-grid system can provide emergency power to areas on the scale of a business compound or a city block, acting almost like a massive back-up generator, making it extremely attractive to businesses whose continued success can depend on avoiding seconds of power disruption. In addition, the micro-grid system is able to supplement an area’s daily energy needs. Considering increasing needs for data back-up across all business sectors, and the growing efficiency of gas-fired electricity production, it makes sense that energy analysts are excited about the potential for this new energy infrastructure.
The Study at ut Austin
Attempting to determine the most optimal U.S. energy sources, based on cost, environmental impact and public health, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, performed a large-scale study and released their findings in a series of white papers in late 2016. The study included solar, wind, coal, nuclear and natural gas. The results favored wind and natural gas energy production over all others.
What Makes this Study So Impactful?
Knowing that any fossil fuel study performed at a Texas university was bound to attract serious scrutiny, UT Austin’s Energy Institute put an emphasis on transparency, designing their collection and analysis methodologies in great detail to ensure fair and balanced data collection that would hopefully avoid general skepticism.
Part of their innovative strategy was a holistic research approach, looking to the fields of law, engineering, economics and public policy for literature and opinions to inform their work. In an interview with the UT News, Energy Institute Director Dr. Tom Edgar said, “These are complex, interrelated issues that cannot be adequately addressed from one perspective. We assembled a cross-disciplinary team to provide a fuller understanding of these costs and their policy implications.”
Using estimates from the data they collected, the team at UT Austin developed a set of online calculators to provide policymakers and other stakeholders with a representation of the financial implications involved with electricity production. The researchers hoped that giving stakeholders clear and consistent information would promote an open and productive conversation.
“We think our methodology is sound and hope it enhances constructive dialogue,” said Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Energy Institute and the paper’s lead author, in an interview with UT News. He said a team of experts debated long and hard over a series of assumptions to decide the tool’s estimates. “But we also know that cost factors change over time, and people disagree about whether to include some of them.” He said the team, “[…]wanted to provide an opportunity for people to change these inputs, and the tools we’ve created allow for that.”
Their thoughtful approach to the work didn’t stop there. While they did use levelized cost of electricity (LCOE, one of the standard measurements in energy research) in their study, Austin’s work also folded in public health and environmental effects, for a more holistic view of the impacts and benefits of energy production. The researchers also calculated specific costs of each energy technology down to the county level, for a more granular view of the data they collected.
How the Study Was Designed
Below is a breakdown of the UT Austin study’s design.
Five Energy-Producing Systems Tested:
5. Natural Gas
Three Categories Analyzed:
1. Generation Technologies
2. Hardware Required to Connect End Users/Generators
Specific Factors Measured:
1. Energy Efficiency
2. Energy Resource Integration (renewable and distributed)
3. Government Subsidies for Electricity Generation
4. Power Plant Costs (operating and capital)
5. Fuel Cost (variability and full fuel cycle)
6. Infrastructure Costs (rail, pipelines and transmission and distribution lines)
7. Environmental and Health Costs (air quality and greenhouse gases)
The study concluded that, in the High Plains, the Midwest and into Texas, the best option is wind energy. For 400 of the 3,110 counties surveyed, nuclear energy was ideal. For most of the rest of the U.S., however, natural gas proved the best option.
(To review the results yourself, you can access the full white paper here.)
It’s safe to say, natural gas will play an important role in the future of clean global energy. Whatever business you’re in, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and whatever country you live in, we all share the same planet and the same atmosphere. Natural gas is an important transitional fuel that will support the Clean Energy Plan and a clean energy future. We’re excited to see more studies like the one from UT Austin that are helping to change the conversation around natural gas and bringing us closer to the clean air future we all dream about.