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July 10, 2014
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Vail Daily column: Dad, what’s a gas station?

Oops, that bridge to the bright renewable energy future looks a little shaky.

Natural gas, after all, still is a fossil fuel — a source we’ll soon enough view as primitive as whale oil and dangerously polluting.

That’s not the major thrust of thought as I listen to academics, economists, investors, industry professionals and politicians.

But I’ve come to believe it’s true.

The Obama administration aims to cut down on coal burning and rely more on cleaner-burning natural gas power plants as part of the U.S. effort to take the edge off global warming.

I had seen natural gas as the bridge to clean power — mainly solar — becoming technologically ready and inexpensive enough to take over energy production in, oh, 30 to 40 years.

Natural gas now is plentiful in the United States. We have at least 100 years’ worth. It’s cheap, and it’s cleaner than coal or oil. Perfect, right?

Maybe not so much. Natural gas production produces a lot of methane, which traps 70 times more heat than carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming. More gas and oil drilling means a lot more methane as a byproduct, basically.

It’s a little up in the air whether livestock or gas and oil drilling emit more methane now, but some question whether a big move to natural gas really is such an improvement, after all.

The consolation is that methane breaks up in decades, while carbon dioxide emissions are the gift that keeps on giving for centuries.

That’s the scary side of things as we begin to see more clearly that humans are cooking the planet.

More hopeful for everyone other than oil and gas moguls, solar energy costs are beginning to drop rapidly. Technological advancements in solar and battery systems may well be moving faster than advancements in oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling as they seek out increasingly difficult and expensive pockets to tap.

Barclays has seen enough that the mainstream investment banker recently downgraded the electric utility sector to “underweight,” based on the likely disruption of solar and effective battery systems on the fossil standard. That seems pretty portentous.

Garvin Jabusch, chief investment officer of Green Alpha Advisors, lays bare the challenges for the fossil fuels industry in his white paper “The Economic Case for Divesting from Fossil Fuels.” While he sees through a green lens, his arguments are cogent.

Oil and gas providers can weather such trifles as concerns about environmental risks and harm associated with their business. But when economic trends turn against them, we’re talking gone faster than the iceman when refrigerators showed up.

Jabusch only starts his case with environmental issues in a cascade of economic reasons not to invest so much in fossil fuels. The mere fact of investing in this means you own global warming and all that comes with that, he asserts. That fact will only get less morally appealing for an investor as cleaner alternatives grow more viable.

As solar and other renewable sources take hold, the fossil fuels companies face abandonment of assets that they can’t pay off in the long term. Renewables already are becoming competitive in cost with fossil fuels, and will only get more so with time.

Fossil fuels companies are likely to wind up having to pay more for the actual damage they cause. Carbon taxes are around the corner in most countries, too.

Subsidies and other government benefits are going to dry up as the world turns to renewables with an increasing understanding that this is not only the path to cleaning up the environment, but makes the most sense economically, as well. A critical mass of opinion will turn this tide against the fossil fuels industries.

Shall we go on?

Energy that renews makes more sense in the long term than what is lost after one use following extraction. The renewable energy grid will be more secure and durable than what we have now. The boom-and-bust cycles that have been a hallmark of fossil fuels energy will smooth out as unrest or other uncertainty in a key region or country no longer can upend the world economy. Renewable sources will offer much more economic certainty in the long term.

Most observers have been pegging the transformation at around 2030 at the earliest and out to 2050 or beyond.

Maybe, if this continues largely as an “eat your peas” initiative for the benefit of the environment and humankind. The pure momentum of habit tends to roll right over the things that we ought to do.

But as soon as solar becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, look out. Our grandchildren will be asking what a gas station was.

Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2920.


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The VailDaily Updated Jul 10, 2014 09:22PM Published Jul 11, 2014 09:42AM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.