As non-renewable resources that are already becoming more difficult to exploit, fossil fuels are a doomed technology, and will gradually become more expensive as supplies dwindle until they finally run out. Aside from the supply question, burning fossil fuels adds carbon to the atmosphere, causing potentially devastating climate change. With these fatal defects in mind, it is particularly outrageous that Slingshot’s local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), is moving forward with participation in a $2.2 billion dollar investment for a liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline in Oregon. The proposed Jordan Cove terminal and the Pacific Connector pipeline will divert money that could be used to build renewable energy sources (like wind and solar) and will instead lock us into fossil fuel dependence for decades to come. There’s still time to stop this shortsighted fossil fuel investment and in so doing, attack the thinking that is behind similar projects world-wide. At this moment in history, energy investments should be for alternative technology, not more of the same fossil foolishness.
Think Globally, Struggle Locally
On December 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which has sole jurisdiction over the project and can trump local or state opposition — approved Jordan Cove and the Pacific connector pipeline by a 3 to 1 vote. PG&E are investing in the $1.2 billion pipeline, which will take years to complete. As proposed, the project would be capable of moving a billion cubic feet of natural gas daily from transnational tankers docking in Coos Bay, Oregon, through a 230 mile pipeline through Southern Oregon, and to customers in California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. Building the pipeline will require disruption of sensitive forest and water ecosystems along the route, leveling a total of 2,000 acres. The governor of Oregon, the SF Board of Supervisors, as well as folks near Coos Bay, all oppose the project. The project would be PG&E’s first use of imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), a technology for moving and trading natural gas worldwide, the way oil is currently traded.
As described in more detail in Slingshot #95, natural gas is widely distributed around the planet. Currently, most natural gas is drilled relatively close to where it is used and then moved by pipeline. Current pipelines can’t easily move gas across oceans. Because the US has used huge amounts of natural gas over the last several decades, and because US gas use continues to increase, the big gas users (like electric utilities, which use about a third of US gas supplies to generate electricity) are worried that local supplies may eventually become scarce and more expensive. In the US, new gas drilling often uses more complex and expensive technology like “fracing”–pumping water under high pressure to the bottom of a well in order to fracture rock formations and release trapped gas supplies.
Meanwhile, there are huge, cheap gas supplies offshore in places like Peru, Russia, Algeria, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago. By super cooling gas to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be liquefied so it can be loaded onto specially designed LNG ships and moved around like oil. When the gas is liquefied, it only takes up 1/600th the space it takes in a gaseous form.
Liquefying natural gas is expensive and uses massive amounts of energy, adding about 20 percent to the carbon footprint of LNG vs. traditional natural gas. While natural gas is considered a “green fuel” when compared to coal, burning gas still releases carbon. Burning coal releases 770-830 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity, vs. 480-560 grams of CO2 per kwh for LNG and 400 grams of CO2 per kwh for regular natural gas.
Each LNG liquefication plants costs $1-3 billion, and each import terminal costs $500 million to $1 billion. This is of course money that could be spent on alternatives to burning gas in the first place, such as windmills or solar powerplants. LNG enables utilities to continue burning gas, rather than developing alternatives, even when local supplies are depleted to the extent that prices begin to rise. In fact, it is just such fossil fuel price increases (associated with depleted supplies) that make more expensive alternative energy sources look economically viable over the long-term. LNG short-circuits this gradual and automatic economic process.
PG&E currently has enough gas to meet demand. Their investment in the $1.2 billion Pacific Connector pipeline is a long-term bet on the future. And it’s the wrong bet — a bet on several more decades of generating most electricity using climate-changing fossil fuels, not zero emissions sources such as solar and wind. Because PG&E is a privately owned utility, its 15 million customers have no direct way to stop this decision — widespread and continuing public protest and pressure from Berkeley to Coos Bay, Oregon is our only hope.
PG&E wants to portray itself as a leader in alternative energy and their advertising is constantly emphasizing their investments in wind and solar technology. And in fact, PG&E is investing in a very promising solar thermal electrical generation project in the Mojave Desert — the Ivanpah project that is to be built by Oakland-based Brightsource Energy.
Unlike rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, which use high-tech materials to turn sun light directly into electricity, solar thermal harnesses heat from the sun to make steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity much like in a fossil-fueled powerplant. Solar thermal is potentially much cheaper and more efficient than photovoltaic panels, which are very expensive per kilowatt hour and which have a very low efficiency rate (i.e. the percent of the sun’s energy falling on the panel that is actually converted into electricity is low.)
In a solar thermal plant, mirrors focus sun on pipes containing liquid (sometimes water, but the liquid can also be a heat transfer chemical that can be heated hotter than water’s boiling point). Heat transfer liquid can potentially be heated to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. While the Brightsource plant will only produce power when there is light to heat water, solar thermal plants that use a liquid other than water can super heat liquids that can be stored in tanks for use whenever electricity is needed — day or night.
It’s worth explaining how solar thermal works because not all alternative energy technologies are equal — each has its own problems and advantages. It may make sense to argue against some alternative technologies if they are particularly expensive or ecologically toxic. Just like LNG can eat up billions that could otherwise be invested in alternative energy, money put into less efficient alternative energy technologies isn’t available for the better ones. If we’re going to argue against using particular energy technologies like LNG, nuclear power, biofuels, etc, it is helpful if we can argue for alternative ways to generate electricity.
I’m particularly excited about solar thermal technology because it is relatively simple (and potentially cheap) and because there is a lot of sun available in a lot of places. But even solar thermal can be problematic since the mirrors take up space in desert areas that are usually extremely environmentally fragile. If utilities eventually build a lot of solar thermal plants, it’s important they be built on land that’s already been disturbed and in ways that allow for environmental recuperation. Sadly, humans have disturbed and destroyed a lot of land.
At the moment, fossil fuel production and combustion are the biggest threats to the environment. PG&E and other utilities are spending billions on protecting their access to fossil fuels for the long-term. Meanwhile, solar, wind and other alternatives get pennies.
For more information, check out www.PacificEnvironment.org.