In their classic duet "It Takes Two," Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston sing about the virtues of partnership over being alone, a maxim that holds true for relationships as much as it does for the power sector—particularly renewable energy and natural gas.
As federal and state policies such as tax credits and renewable portfolio standards have increased the use of wind and solar energy in recent years, the need for a close partnership between gas and renewables has come into sharper focus.
By nature, wind and solar energy only generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines. Other energy sources must kick in when these intermittent sources are not producing power. Energy storage technologies are not far enough along and many existing power plants cannot turn on or off quickly, as is required when balancing renewables. Although wind and solar combined currently supply three percent of our electricity in the U.S., the challenges of integrating on-again, off-again power sources are being confronted every day.
"Intermittency is probably the challenge utilities are putting the most efforts into researching at the moment," said Cara Libby, project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute. "The biggest concern, of course, is how to keep the power on."
There is one energy source that is flexible enough to fill renewable energy's gaps: natural gas.
According to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, "Natural gas-fired power plants provide the greatest generation flexibility to mitigate large-scale penetration of intermittent renewables." Other power generation technologies cannot perform this function as well because they were not designed for it.
As a result, natural gas is critically important to ensuring electric grid stability and natural gas will be a key partner to wind and solar energy as their use increases.
Natural gas power plants can quickly ramp up or down as needed to balance the electric grid, particularly when consumer energy demand peaks. Wind and solar energy by nature cannot do the same. As public policy drives the increased use of renewable energy, natural gas will become even more important to balancing the grid and preventing rolling blackouts.
And natural gas helps to keep consumer energy bills low: natural gas power plants have relatively low upfront construction costs and new drilling technologies and recent discoveries of vast deposits have led to affordable natural gas prices. A recent Brattle Group study on natural gas and renewables shows that consumers spend less on energy now than they have in 40 years, thanks almost exclusively to natural gas.
Power generators are innovating to take advantage of the synergy between renewable energy and natural gas. Florida Power and Light (FPL) has built the Martin Generation Solar Energy Center, the world's first hybrid solar facility, which co-locates the world's second-largest solar plant with a natural gas plant. This project is an experiment in how to mitigate solar energy's intermittency and higher costs with natural gas.
This new approach is a perfect illustration of how renewable energy can and must work together with natural gas. Through partnership, they can produce power that is affordable for consumers, prevents blackouts, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.