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Natural Gas Dominates US Energy Conference, But Gains Seen in Energy Efficiency and Renewables

by Conrad Mascarenhas


Discussions of natural gas, and liquid natural gas (LNG) in particular, dominated the EIA 2013 Energy Conference, which brought together professors, government officials, and private sector leaders to discuss the American energy landscape in the near future.


Over the course of the two-day conference, speakers remained optimistic about the growth of the natural gas industry and the advantages it could confer to the US, especially opportunities to expand to developing markets in southern Asia, such as China, Vietnam, India, and Malaysia, along with South America.    Jason Bordoff, a professor at Columbia University, elucidated some impacts of the recent American shale boom, noting that the boom would increase the export of coal and displace some LNG imports, which would probably land in European markets.   Environmentally, the reduced use of coal would lower greenhouse gas emissions, but not by that much.    


More worryingly, speakers neglected to explore the environmental consequences of natural gas.  Though this event was an energy conference, not an environmental meeting, presenters never followed up on Mr. Fanning’s warning that “fracking concerns must be resolved” before natural gas takes a dominant role in the energy market.  Considering the steady flow of studies predicting chemical contamination of groundwater, it would have been reassuring for more speakers to have addressed the safety of natural gas.


Sukanya Paciorek, Vice-President of Vornado Realty Trust, cited a promising grid integration improvement – a mechanism by which buildings can reduce their electricity use in response to grid energy shortages.  Paciorek explained how her company has invested in automated demand response functions in her buildings, so that  when employees start to leave in the afternoon, lights turn off and fans shut down.  “The building actually tapers back by itself,” Paciorek said.  


Roland Risser, director of the Building Technologies Office at the Department of Energy, suggested that while demand response is effective locally, buildings should have a more comprehensive and integrated response system.  He identified a few problems with grid communication: “the language is not consistent, the data is rarely comparable, and although the grid-to-land transactions work, they are not scalable.”  Instead, Risser envisioned a grid in which there is two-way transactive communication between energy units and energy users.  To that end he has established a Building Performance Database, which has collected data on over 60,000 buildings, and a Standard Energy Efficiency Data Platform, which attempts to put data from multiple sources into one energy language.  These efforts are important in making the grid more flexible; energy consumers in the future will have more options in terms of how to cut back on energy use.


Speakers predicted growing market shares of both natural gas and renewable energy.  Jim Diefenderfer of the EIA estimated that the 2011 shares were 25%, 13%, 18%, and 42% of the market for natural gas, renewables, nuclear energy, and coal, respectively.  He predicts that in 2040, natural gas will rise to 30% and renewables to 19%, with coal dropping by 7%.  Nuclear energy will decline as a part of the energy mix unless the government would enact a carbon tax, limiting the growth of the natural gas and coal industries.


Some new renewable technologies seemed promising.  Dr. Moniz supported the production of small modular reactors: safer nuclear power plants that are built at construction sites and shipped to residences, under a consent-based plan.  The first site to develop these kinds of reactors in the US could be operational by 2022.  Mr. Fanning wants his customers to have thin-film photovoltaic solar panels on their rooftops.  While the price point is currently too high to be commercially viable, Fanning hopes that more efficient technology will make these panels affordable within the next decade.


Other speakers were also optimistic about rising energy efficiency, especially as hybrid vehicles become cost-effective in the near future.  As explained by Ronald Gecan of the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government offers tax credits for battery plug-ins, starting at $2,500 for a 4kWh plug-in and increasing to $7,500 for a 16kWh battery.  In the present, only electric cars with 4kWh plug-ins are cost-competitive with cars running on oil engines, because it is harder to make full use of larger batteries.  Thankfully, better technology in the future will lower the costs of battery production.  “By 2020,” Gecan said, “if these taxes are left in place, you will find essentially that all electronic vehicles are worth it.”

Conrad Mascarenhas is a Volunteer Writer for GoodSpeaks.  He has spent two years as a volunteer English teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.  He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he attends Walt Whitman High School as a rising senior.