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Posted: November 02, 2012

Cleantech’s “bridge fuel”

Colorado Cleantech Industry Association Special Section

David Lewis

Cleantech and natural gas. If reading that sentence makes your blood pressure rise, just hang in and read on. Because sometimes things work out. If they do this time, the two energy sources could go together like peas in a pod.

"There is a handful of ways that you can look at natural gas as fitting into the clean technology space," says Tom Dougherty, attorney with Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons LLP and leader of the firm’s Energy and Infrastructure Practice Area.

"The simplest one is just looking at natural gas as a lower-emission source for energy, so on the electricity side you have zero emission sources at one end – solar, wind, nuclear – and everything goes up from there. If you look at fossil fuel sources the traditional sources of coal, oil and natural gas, then natural gas is generally accepted as being the cleanest of those three."

And it turns out that natural gas and cleantech can work together nicely.

"Natural gas-fired power plants have the advantage of being able to turn on and off very quickly and come up to power very quickly," Dougherty says. "There are a lot of people looking at the role of natural gas generation as a means to help integrate renewable resources, particularly wind and solar, which are highly variable."

Let’s say for instance your solar power plant is enjoying a pleasant, sunny day down in the San Luis Valley, producing 100 percent of its power capacity. Alas, a threatening black cloud heaves into view.

At that moment, "You want to have some ability to quickly fill that gap with alternative generation, and that’s where natural gas-fired generation has the advantage of being able to ramp up very quickly."

If you think about it, some power plants basically are jet engines mounted on the ground. "They all have the advantage of being able to turn on very quickly and bring them to power, so they have that benefit of being able to help integrate variable generation such as wind and solar."

Nor is teaching natural gas and cleantech to work together to generate electricity the duo’s only potential utility. Dougherty is optimistic about the growing role natural gas is playing in fleet transportation. Getting a push from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hasn’t hurt.

"A number of different businesses that operate fleets are exploring natural gas as a cleaner technology and as an alternative to gasoline or diesel fuel vehicles," Dougherty says.

Fleets are emphasizing natural gas fueling "because they lend themselves to having their own fueling facilities," he says.

Natural gas has inserted itself into the picture because, due largely to hydraulic fracturing, there is an abundance of domestic gas production now, and prices have taken a header.

"Prices are relatively low now, especially in Colorado compared to the rest of the country, and certainly prices are low in the United States compared to foreign countries," Dougherty says.

If the notion of coexistence between cleantech and natural gas puts your teeth on edge, you might have to get used to it.

"Traditionally, historically, there has this been this tension between traditional energy sources – oil, gas, coal – and the newer alternative energies – wind, solar, biomass, geothermal – and from a market standpoint you can appreciate that there is competition between those because again looking at the electricity application they are both trying to do the same thing: deliver electricity to the grid," Dougherty adds.

"Natural gas is positioning itself in-between those two; it is part of the traditional energy sources on one hand, but it is also one of the cleaner sources of those traditional sources, and in that sense, it is the bridge fuel."

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