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Fossil gas: myths and facts

Three plans for new fossil gas plants in the region are based on a series of myths about gas versus clean energy as a source of electricity.

A flare burns excess natural gas in the Permian Basin in Loving County, Texas.
A flare burns excess natural gas in the Permian Basin in Loving County, Texas.
REUTERS/Angus Mordant

At a time when the presidential election dominates the media, West Coast forest fires and Gulf Coast hurricanes are just the latest reminders that man made climate change is real and cannot be ignored. Yet electric utilities here in Minnesota continue to plunge forward with plans for new fossil gas plants even as falling costs and technological advances for clean sources of energy — like wind and solar — give ratepayers the potential to benefit from lower electric bills while moving the state toward its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.

At this time Xcel Energy is planning an 800 megawatt fossil gas plant in Becker, Minnesota, which will cost over $1 billion and add about 3 million metric tons of carbon to our atmosphere each year. Minnesota Power has a proposal to partner with Dairyland Power to construct the 525 MW Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) fracked gas plant in Superior, Wisconsin. If built, NTEC would cost ratepayers over $700 million to construct and emit over 1 million tons of carbon each year. Building clean energy, like wind and solar, instead of NTEC and the gas plant in Becker is expected to save Minnesota and Wisconsin customers approximately $600 million. Meanwhile, the Rochester Public Utilities Commission is considering the construction of a new fossil gas plant despite the city’s 2015 resolution to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2031.

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These three plans for new fossil gas plants are based on a series of myths about gas versus clean energy as a source of electricity:

Myth: Gas is a clean fuel

Fact: Gas pollutes our air, water and climate

Allan Campbell
Allan Campbell
Too often, newspapers report on new gas plants saying things like “natural gas power plants produce only half as much greenhouse gas as coal plants.” Such a statement simply is not true. Gas-fired power plants generally produce about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2), but they also produce methane, another greenhouse gas, that over a 20-year span contributes 86 times as much to global warming as CO2. Their methane production is in part a result of methane released during the fracking process, when gas bearing rock formations are fractured (or “fracked”) by high water pressure to free the gas. Thus it’s a misnomer to call this gas “natural,” since the majority of gas in the U.S. is derived from the unnatural process of fracking. Fossil gas, or fracked gas, are more honest names.

While CO2 and methane are the pollutants that do the most harm to our climate, other pollutants that are harmful to human health are released through the mining of sand used in fracking. Mining of silica, a fine sand that is mined in Minnesota for fracking, releases fine particulates that can damage lungs leading to increased risk of lung cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Fine particulates are also a leading cause of asthma. One recent study found that individuals exposed for long periods of time to even low levels of fine particulates are much more likely to die from COVID-19.

Myth: Gas Power Plants are needed because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Fact: Minnesota can reliably meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals without building new gas plants.

This argument against wind and solar power may have worked a few years back, but rapid developments in battery technology have made it obsolete, as demonstrated by a recent study from the University of California that shows America could safely achieve 90% carbon-free energy as early as 2035 without building any new gas plants. Right here in Minnesota, Great River Energy plans to operate a battery at a power plant in Cambridge that will provide 150 hours of continuous energy capability, compared with the four hours common from traditional lithium-ion batteries. The combination of new battery technology and continued falling costs from solar and wind energy will make new fossil gas plants uncompetitive to run long before the end of their intended 30-plus year life spans.

Myth: Gas delivers cheap electricity.

Fact: Renewable energy delivers cheaper electricity.

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With improved technology and economies of scale, the cost of renewable energy generation is plunging rapidly. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that the lifetime cost of solar generation fell by 87% and onshore wind by 56% during the 2010s, making solar today the cheapest source of energy over the lifetime of a new facility once construction and fuel costs (zero for solar or wind) are factored in. This means that gas plants being built today are likely to be forced into early retirement by economic forces, leaving rate payers on the hook for paying off their costs.

Myth: Moving away from fossil fuels will cost jobs.

Fact: Moving toward 100% renewable generation could triple the number of energy sector jobs in Minnesota.

A 2018 study commissioned by the McKnight Foundation, “Minnesota’s Smarter Grid Study,” found that state policies leading toward renewable energy would more than triple the number of clean energy jobs, creating 14,000 jobs in wind and 36,000 in solar by 2050. Overall, the average scenario leading to decarbonization of electricity generation would produce approximately 20,000 more full-time jobs than the baseline scenario as new generation infrastructure is built out to meet the needs of electrification of other sectors.

Allan Campbell, of Minneapolis, is a retired financial analyst.


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