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The U.S. wants to slash carbon emissions from power plants. Natural gas is in the way

To close America's remaining coal plants, many industry analysts believe the country needs natural gas to ensure reliable energy supplies until cleaner options like battery storage are widely available.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
To close America's remaining coal plants, many industry analysts believe the country needs natural gas to ensure reliable energy supplies until cleaner options like battery storage are widely available.

Under President Joe Biden, the United States aims to cut all carbon pollution by 2035 from the power plants that run American homes and businesses. It's a first step toward the broader goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions across the entire economy by midcentury to rein in climate change.

But the ambitions of the Biden administration are set to collide with the country's power industry, which looks like it will continue burning fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Over the next few years, the U.S. is expected to build around 17 gigawatts of natural gas plants, enough to power close to 12.8 million homes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Unless they're closed early, those plants could operate for decades on an electric grid that still gets almost 60% of its power from fossil fuels.

Natural gas creates fewer emissions than coal when it's burned, but producing and transporting gas releases huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Most remaining oil and gas deposits must remain buried for the world to have a decent shot at keeping global temperatures from rising to more dangerous levels, according to a study last year in the journal Nature.

But analysts don't expect the U.S. will end its reliance on natural gas any time soon. To close America's remaining coal plants, which generate around a fifth its electricity, many industry analysts believe the country needs natural gas to ensure reliable energy supplies until cleaner options like battery storage are widely available.

"If you're going to kick that 20% of coal off the grid by 2030 or 2035, there is zero chance you can do that without increasing gas," says Andy DeVries, an analyst at CreditSights who tracks companies in the U.S. power industry. "After the coal's off the grid, how much longer does it take to then kick the gas off? That's at least another 10 years," DeVries says. "And that's aggressive."

Scientists say the incremental cuts that countries are making to emissions won't be enough to avoid a future that brings more damaging storms, floods and heat waves. The U.S. has a giant pipeline of renewable energy projects — 45 gigawatts of solar and wind are expected to be built next year alone — but continuing to add emissions from new fossil fuel plants makes it harder to limit global warming.

"The consensus is that we need to be at net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by about 2050 in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change," says Ben King, an associate director at the Rhodium Group, a research firm. Continuing to build natural gas plants "certainly seems at loggerheads with that commitment," he says.

Utility companies say they can zero out greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to rely on natural gas plants like this one in California.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Getty Images
Utility companies say they can zero out greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to rely on natural gas plants like this one in California.

Power companies insist natural gas won't derail their plans to cut emissions

One of America's new natural gas plants is being built in Alabama by a subsidiary of Southern Company, a vast utility with millions of customers in the Southeast. Alabama regulators signed off on the project in 2020, shortly after Southern announced plans to eliminate or offset its greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.

Southern set its climate target after facing pressure from big investors to come up with a strategy to manage the risks from global warming and to capitalize on growing demand for clean energy. The company gets 70% of its energy from fossil fuels, and the net-zero pledge was applauded by activists and investors. In a statement praising Southern, the manager of New York City's public pension funds at the time said cutting carbon emissions "is not just a moral imperative, it's a financial necessity."

But that doesn't mean Southern's walking away from fossil fuels.

Once it's up and running, the company's new gas plant in Alabama is expected to operate until the 2060s — well past the point when Southern has said it will achieve net zero emissions. And more natural gas looks to be on the way. Southern's subsidiary in Alabama has said it expects to be making gas investments into the 2040s.

A Southern spokesperson said the company is "committed to reducing our [greenhouse gas] emissions to provide our customers and communities a clean energy future." The spokesperson pointed to recent comments by Southern's CEO, Thomas Fanning, in which Fanning said natural gas "must remain a solution" for America's energy needs.

"People that say, somehow, hydrocarbons are gonna go away and we don't need them, I think, are sorely mistaken," Fanning said at an energy conference in September. To deal with heat-trapping pollution, Fanning said that by 2050, "all existing, or almost all existing" natural gas plants the company owns will be outfitted with technology to capture carbon emissions. He said hydrogen could also be used to cut emissions.

Other utilities that rely heavily on fossil fuels are making similar bets.

Duke Energy, which has said it will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, is building a natural gas plant in North Carolina that it says will also be able to burn hydrogen. A Duke spokesperson called natural gas a "bridge fuel" that will allow the company to close its coal plants. A spokesperson for Dominion Energy, which plans to eliminate or offset its carbon and methane emissions by midcentury, says a gas plant the company is building in South Carolina will probably only be used for short periods of time when electricity demand is highest.

Both companies are looking to carbon capture technology, which keeps emissions from being released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned, to help achieve their climate goals. And they recently joined a group of utilities that want to build hydrogen projects across the southeastern U.S.

However, carbon capture technology is expensive and has often performed worse than expected. And hydrogen poses challenges that could be hard to overcome, analysts say, including potentially weakening pipelines that transport it.

"There is no reason to take any utility's net-zero commitment seriously, especially if they are investing in anything that emits new CO2 or has any new emissions," says Daniel Tait, a research and communication manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that advocates for renewable energy.

Climate change is making storms like Hurricane Ian that slammed into Florida in September wetter and more powerful.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
Climate change is making storms like Hurricane Ian that slammed into Florida in September wetter and more powerful.

World faces runaway climate impacts as temperatures rise

At the slow pace countries are cutting emissions, warming is on track to set off runaway impacts that could lead to permanent changes in the Earth's ecosystems, such as the widespread death of coral reefs.

"The more that we accelerate and keep putting greenhouse gasses into the climate now, the more we have a chance of reaching tipping points in the Earth's system," says Lisa Dilling, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. "If you start to get to these tipping points, our climate starts to change in ways that are possibly irreversible, possibly self-perpetuating."

At the recent United Nations climate conference in Egypt, countries said they're still committed to keeping average global temperatures from rising by more than than 1.5 degrees Celsius (about 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the pre-industrial era of the 1800s. If the world gets hotter than that, scientists say catastrophic impacts are more likely to happen. But it isn't clear how that goal will be achieved. The vast majority of heat-trapping pollution comes from humans using oil, gas and coal, but several countries blocked language about phasing down fossil fuel use from being included in the talks' final agreement.

"We need to rapidly plan out the phase down and phase out of coal, oil and gas, especially in rich, large countries," Manish Bapna, CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in Egypt.

The problem, according to industry analysts, is that power companies don't see better options than natural gas right now. Batteries are getting a lot of attention, but the heads of big utility companies aren't "entirely confident" that they're ready yet to back up all of the intermittent wind and solar power that's being added to the grid, says Ryan Sweezey, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm.

"I don't think [people] quite understand how unprecedented, how monumentally challenging the task is to essentially remake the energy system," Sweezey says. Net zero emissions probably won't happen by 2050, he says, "just given the scale of the challenges involved."

The question is whether the U.S. could move faster. And a lot of experts think the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act could help to do just that. The law provides billions of dollars of incentives that are expected to make renewable energy even more competitive with fossil fuels. And the war in Ukraine has driven up natural gas prices, changing how some investors are approaching the energy market, says King of the Rhodium Group.

"Developers are taking a second look at natural gas and saying, 'Is this going to be a prudent, long-term investment, given both expected higher gas prices into the future as well as just how inexpensive it is to deploy technologies like wind and solar and batteries?" King says.

But change so far is happening gradually in energy markets, and companies are still making investments that will lead to new emissions.

"I think there's a long tail here," says Bank of America analyst Julien Dumoulin-Smith, "specifically tied to the use of natural gas."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.

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