Ohio State University plans to build a gas-fired energy plant. Its supporters argue that a natural gas plant is both cheaper to operate than a coal plant and produces much less carbon dioxide per unit energy. Both those statements are true — and misleading.
The extraction and distribution of natural gas involve extensive leaks of methane into the atmosphere, and since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, this largely offsets the carbon footprint advantage of natural gas over coal. And the competition for gas, in terms of pricing, is renewable energy, not coal.
The “fuels” for solar and wind energy are free, so the cost of RE is very largely the cost of manufacturing the energy capture and storage technologies. Solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion battery manufacturing all follow Wright’s law, meaning that their price steadily drops as cumulative production increases. Think computer chips —as the price drops, new applications become viable, demand increases, production increases and the price drops even further. This is the “virtuous cycle” of technology development.
Not only is RE cheaper than natural gas now, the price of RE will keep dropping, relentlessly, so its price advantage over natural gas will keep growing, for decades. Indeed, as more shale gas companies go bankrupt because they cannot compete with RE pricing and make a profit, the price of natural gas is likely to rise in the long term. This is why it does not make sense to make a multi-decade commitment to natural gas right now. It will become a major money loser.
RE already generates more jobs than the fossil fuel industry, and that direct employment advantage is steadily growing too. RE prices are predictable, which is a major advantage for manufacturing industries, and this fact could drive additional, indirect job growth in Ohio and promote industrial recovery.
Last but not least, a very rapid transition to RE is the only clearly viable route to saving our climate system. Climate change, unchecked, will destroy our agriculture and communities with turbo-charged storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and scorching heat waves. Large parts of the world will become uninhabitable, causing mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people and dangerous levels of political and economic instability.
The supporters of fossil fuels might choose to deny the laws of physics, but they cannot suspend them.
We have all seen the terrible consequences of politicians ignoring or denying science during the course of the present pandemic. Climate change, if unchecked, would do far more damage than the pandemic, and much of that damage would be irreversible. As climate change damage accumulates, the pressures on governments to limit CO2 emissions will become irresistible. That pressure will come from citizens worried for themselves and their children and from a business community that is increasingly unwilling to allow the narrow short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry to destroy the long-term prospects of the far wider economy.
A future carbon tax is inevitable, and this will further increase RE’s cost advantage. Shouldn’t OSU embrace and promote RE to protect Ohio’s environment and economy; create large numbers of well-paying, non-outsourceable jobs; drive technological innovation; form viable new business ecosystems and opportunities; and make a sensible long-term business investment, given the strong and inescapable price trends?
Of course, OSU has been operating in a state political framework that systematically obstructs RE and promotes nuclear energy and fossil fuels. The advocates of RE have long pointed to what amounts to legalized bribery of the Ohio legislature by the fossil fuel and power companies. Now we are aware of possible criminal corruption as well.
Clean energy industries do not need to corrupt state or national governance because they can win on their business merits and because climate change requires us to decarbonize if our economies are going to survive and prosper. The unresolved question is, can we decarbonize fast enough to avoid tremendous human and economic damage?
In choosing a new energy source, OSU should invest wisely and position itself on the right side of history.
Michael Bevis is a professor at Ohio State University, where he investigates climate change, energy and technology transitions. He co-teaches a general education course on climate change with a biologist and a historian.