Obama's Clean Energy Plan Pits Cheap Gas Against Renewables

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Longtime green tech writer Michael Kanellos isn't crazy about Barack Obama's plan to get 80 percent of American energy from clean sources by 2035. That's because Obama included natural gas in the mix with nuclear, coal with carbon capture, and the renewables as "clean." Gas, at best, is cleaner than coal, at least from carbon dioxide perspective, and that's good. But the low construction costs of natural gas plants makes it difficult for nuclear or renewables to compete with them.

It's not that Kanellos is anti-gas, but he doesn't see the wisdom in including an industry and technology that is *already* mature in with a handful of still-fledgling competitors.

Kanellos' argument makes sense to me, particularly when the long-term price of gas is likely to fluctuate. A huge push to gas means locking ourselves into the same fossil fuel price cycles that send shockwaves through the economy. But for months, the Washington consensus has been that gas would be a big winner in the near future because of climate worries. It's part of a whole packet of ideas about energy that nearly everyone I hear here seems to carry with them.

Here's the key snippet from Kanellos' essay:

The problem of including gas in a clean energy standard is that it is already mature. Natural gas already provides 21 percent of U.S. electricity right now and the figure will rise to 40 percent by 2035 according to consulting and construction giant Black & Veatch... Capital costs for combined cycle plants are also comparatively inexpensive, hovering in the low $1,000 per kilowatt range.

That's all good. We will need that energy to keep the country moving. Renewables can't be built in time to displace it all and it beats burning coal. Unfortunately, by including gas in a clean energy standard opens up the possibility that it will absorb the lion's share of research grants, loan guarantees and other dollars coming out of Washington under clean energy mandates. Discounts on desert land for wind and solar farms could easily be matched by discount royalties on gas projects.

In other words, the President could end fossil fuel subsidies, but funnel the money into clean technologies like fossil fuel.

Image: borisvolodnikov/Flickr.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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