Natural gas as an electricity source: Is it sustainable?
While an international report predicts the rise of solar electricity worldwide, a different electricity revolution is already happening locally: the rise of natural gas.
Natural gas recently overtook coal as the top source in the U.S. for electric power generation for the first time.
Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM Interconnection, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in Pennsylvania and 12 other states, said the upward trend of natural gas began about five years ago.
"Natural gas fire is now very competitive with coal," Dotter said. "Ten years ago, that's not something most people would've predicted in electricity."
At 36 percent, coal is still atop PJM's generation by fuel type chart, according to its most recent report, but natural gas, at 17 percent, is quickly closing in on its competitor. Most new generation requests in the past five years have been for natural gas, Dotter said.
Pennsylvania residents have already seen the benefits of the natural gas boom from drillers in the state's Marcellus Shale formation.
Because Pennsylvania is abundant with natural gas, prices for generation have been decreasing, said Scott Surgeoner, spokesman for Met-Ed, one of York's largest electric suppliers.
"Gas seems to be a viable option," Surgeoner said.
The future: The Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, which looks at the future of the world's power market, predicts gas won't be a viable option for long.
The report suggests that few countries outside the U.S. will replace coal plants with natural gas, and utility-scale solar will be cheaper than natural gas production in the U.S. by 2036.
Study author Seb Henbest said that, while natural gas is moving strongly right now, it's not going to be cheap forever.
"Prices tend to rise in extracting industries," he said. "(As coal production drops off), you're going to get to the point where gas is just competing with renewables, and that's when things get less rosy for gas."
Coal's drop-off can be attributed to more strict Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which are forcing coal plants to retire nationwide, according to Dotter.
Nuclear is the other major electric source in York, with two reactors located on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.
Cleaning up: Bob Astor, spokesman for Shipley Energy, said he's seen technology make major improvements over the years to scrub emissions from coal fire units and natural gas fire generation facilities, but more can still be done.
"Personally, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that we have breathable air for our children and future generations," Astor said, adding that we also can't afford to turn our backs on traditional energy sources.
For Annalisa Gojmer-ac, who had solar panels installed on her roof this year, solar is the answer to the environmental issues associated with energy production.
"It's an absolute no-brainer," she said. "You don't have to worry about fossil fuels destroying your air. It's a perfect full circle."
However, Jeff Georg — president of electrical contracting company Ascom Inc. — said it's naive to believe solar electricity will rise in the U.S. just because it's the right thing to do.
"You're talking about the fuel industry, oil, coal, natural gas — these people control what happens in politics," Georg said. "All these big players that have the money and natural resources want to sell more coal and oil and natural gas and (solar) ain't ever going to take over that stuff because these people already have control.
"It's like taking on a bully in the school yard: you might pop him in the eye once, which (solar) did back in 2009," he said, referring to the Sunshine Solar program, which helped fund $100 million in solar projects in Pennsylvania before running out of money sooner than anticipated. "But he's healed, and now we're back to natural gas and coal and foreign oil."
Another round: Solar may look to throw another punch soon, with Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal including $50 million to restart the Sunshine Solar program.
Wolf, a Democrat from Mount Wolf, is proposing a $225 million energy initiative aimed at returning Pennsylvania to the national leadership in renewable energy.
But even with the proposed money in the budget, Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City — who also serves on the committee — said he believes the state isn't doing enough to promote cleaner energy projects.
Henbest said politics could only do so much to change solar's upward trajectory, arguing there would likely be pushback if the government tried to add costs to make solar less attractive.
"Once it gets cheap enough, governments won't be able to ignore (solar)," Henbest said.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com.