Most people are in favor of renewable energy such as wind and solar, yet many supporters tend to look at natural gas with disdain.1 However, a new NBER study finds that this position is untenable. As one of the authors writes in The Washington Post,
Because of the particular nature of clean energy sources like solar and wind, you can’t simply add them to the grid in large volumes and think that’s the end of the story. Rather, because these sources of electricity generation are “intermittent” — solar fluctuates with weather and the daily cycle, wind fluctuates with the wind — there has to be some means of continuing to provide electricity even when they go dark. And the more renewables you have, the bigger this problem can be.
Now, a new study suggests that at least so far, solving that problem has ironically involved more fossil fuels — and more particularly, installing a large number of fast-ramping natural gas plants, which can fill in quickly whenever renewable generation slips.
…In the study, the researchers took a broad look at the erection of wind, solar, and other renewable energy plants (not including large hydropower or biomass projects) across 26 countries that are members of an international council known as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development over the period between the year 1990 and 2013. And they found a surprisingly tight relationship between renewables on the one hand, and gas on the other.
…“Our paper calls attention to the fact that renewables and fast-reacting fossil technologies appear as highly complementary and that they should be jointly installed to meet the goals of cutting emissions and ensuring a stable supply,” the paper adds.
The study seems to indicate that natural gas is “a so-called “bridge fuel” that allows for a transition into a world of more renewables, as it is both flexible and also contributes less carbon dioxide emissions than does coal, per unit of energy generated by burning the fuel.” Or, as Reason‘s science writer Ronald Bailey puts it, “Anti-fracking pro-renewable energy activists are walking contradictions.”